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Bill Hearing Rush Begins at Texas Legislature

- Two TAB Open Government Bills Heard, One Advances

The legislative gearbox, especially in the Texas House, has shifted into high gear. 

Lawmakers are busy trying to get their bills set for a hearing, secure a successful committee vote, and move those bills out of committee. 

That is especially true in the House as the first deadline is May 10, the last day a House committee can report a House bill out of committee.  The Senate does not have such bill deadlines

While at first glance, six weeks seems like a lot of time to accomplish this, but as a practical matter, if a bill is not out of a House committee by the end of the third week in April, it is likely dead. 

The problem is, there will be too many bills ahead of you on the House calendar or in the House Calendars or House Local and Consent Calendars committees.

Nursing Home Information Measure Advances

Two of TAB’s newsroom legislative priority bills were heard last week by their respective committees.

One of them, SB 930 by Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, was approved by the Senate Health and Human Services Committee on Thursday. 

In its original form, it would require state health authorities to provide information on facilities and number of cases/deaths from an infectious disease outbreak at a nursing home or assisted living center.

The approved committee substitute incorporates language from SB 882 by committee Chairman Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, which requires local health authorities to do the same.

As there appears to be no opposition to the measure, SB 930 could make it over to the Texas House by mid-April.

The bill had its first listing on the Senate’s Intent Calendar on Tuesday, which means it will be eligible for floor debate and a vote as early as this week.

Open Meetings Reforms

The House State Affairs Committee heard HB 2683 by Rep. Terry Canales, D-Edinburg, last Thursday, a measure the proposes guarantees of public participation and attendance when open meetings shift to the remote, electronic environment.

Increasingly and especially with pandemic conditions, governmental bodies have held virtual meetings online.

While Texas Open Meetings Act (TOMA) provisions continue to apply, some public officials are confused about how to ensure public access and participation.

For instance, those who want to make a public comment should not be required to attend in person if the rest of the meeting is virtual.  Accommodations should be made for call-in access for those who do not have adequate internet coverage.

HB 2683 brings the Texas Open Meetings Act fully into 2021 by creating safeguards for the public when meetings go remote.

The bill was left pending and barring any serious setbacks behind the scenes, HB 2683 could be up for its committee vote this week.

Other TAB Legislative Priorities Await Hearings

Six other concerns are addressed by legislation in this session’s TAB newsroom legislative agenda, including:

“Skeleton Crews” / Remote Work

SB 925 by Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, and HB 1416 by Rep. Giovanni Capriglione, R-Southlake

These companion bills clearly define what constitutes a “business day” to prevent the abuse of the “skeleton crew” loophole in the tolling of 10 business days in which governmental bodies must respond to Texas Public Information Act (TPIA) requests.

Dates of Birth (DOB) Verification

SB 926 by Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, and HB 3535 by Rep. Todd Hunter, R-Corpus Christi

Knowing a birth date ensures accuracy in background checks by employers and financial institutions; allows for the vetting of political candidates; identifies those with criminal records who are working with children; and provides verification for news reporting when there is a common name.

A 2015 appeals court ruling expanded a Texas Supreme Court decision creating confusion on the availability of birthdates in various public records.

More than 10,000 Attorney General rulings have now been issued allowing redaction of birthdates in various public records.

TAB and others have sought to correct this problem in two previous legislative sessions. 

Required TPIA Response / TPIA Enforcement

SB 927 by Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, and HB 3015 by Rep. Anna Hernandez, D-Houston

Government agencies by law must provide public records to requestors promptly and without delay. 

They have up to 10 business days to fulfill the request or to seek an Attorney General ruling to withhold records.

There is currently no practical way to penalize agencies that do not respond to records requests in a timely manner, or, at all! 

At a minimum, public officials should be required to notify requestors if there are no records responsive to the specific request. 

Requestors should also be told if the governmental body has a previous Attorney General ruling allowing withholding of the information.

Searchable / Sortable Records

SB 928 by Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, and HB 1810 by Rep. Giovanni Capriglione, R-Southlake

To prevent data from being released in useless formats, these companion bills require electronic public information be produced in a searchable and sortable format (such as an Excel spreadsheet) if that information is maintained in that manner. 

Additionally, these bills clarify that data dictionaries and record layouts that define data fields are public information subject to disclosure. 

This allows requestors to make sense of the data they request from government entities.

Government Contracts Online

SB 929 by Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, and HB 2913 by Rep. Giovanni Capriglione, R-Southlake

The public’s ability to view government contracts is a basic right and helps citizens know how taxpayer dollars are spent.

Yet some governments continue to try to keep contract information secret.

These companion bills would require the online posting of many types of government contracts to promote the transparency of taxpayer-funded purchases or services by governmental bodies.

Catastrophe Notice

SB 1225 by Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, and HB 3627 by Rep. Chris Paddie, R-Marshall

In the past, catastrophes, natural disasters, and other similar emergencies rendered it difficult or impossible for impacted governmental bodies to timely respond to Texas Public Information Act requests—either due to emergency work related to the catastrophe or, in some cases, because government offices were shut down by flooding or other damage.

Senate Bill 494, passed in 2019, codified what had been a long-standing informal practice of allowing governmental entities, on rare occasions, to temporarily suspend responding to open records requests.

Governments can now file “catastrophe notices” with the Texas Attorney General’s Office notifying the AG that they will embark on a seven-day suspension period for responding to TPIA requests.

When necessary, a seven-day extension of the initial suspension notice can be filed, for a total of 14 days of suspension per notice.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the catastrophe notice provision of the TPIA was rarely used. But when pandemic-related office closures began in March 2020, dozens of governmental bodies across Texas filed catastrophe notices.

In some cases, their offices were completely closed because of the pandemic, but soon after, remote and even in-person work resumed.

These companion bills specify that a “catastrophe,” which includes occurrences such as floods, fires, hurricanes, epidemics, and power outages, does not apply to periods in which governmental bodies are required to work remotely but can still electronically access requested information and otherwise respond to TPIA requests. 

The bills further define the conditions of a “catastrophe” in relation to suspension of the TPIA and how many days a catastrophe notice and extension can remain in effect.

“Catch-All” Open Government Omnibus Bill

Sen. Zaffirini has filed an omnibus Open Government measure, SB 923, that includes the following bills which are detailed above: SB 924 – Remote Meetings; SB 925 - Skeleton Crews / Remote Work; SB 926 – Date of Birth (DOB) Verification; SB 927 - Required TPIA Response; SB 928 – Searchable/Sortable Records; SB 929 - Government Contracts Online; and SB 930 - Nursing Homes / Infectious Diseases.

Depending on the dictates of the session, it may be necessary to move all these measures in the form of one bill.

Questions? Contact TAB’s Michael Schneider or call (512) 322-9944.

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