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Lawmakers Rush to Meet Regular Bill Filing Deadline

- Most TAB Open Government Priorities Filed

Texas lawmakers are scrambling to beat this Friday’s regular bill filing deadline, the 60th day of the 140 day 87th Texas Legislature. More than 4,000 bills and resolutions have been filed this session and TAB expects another 2,000 bills to be filed by week’s end.

TAB is part of the Transparent and Accountable Government (TAG) Coalition which also includes the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, Texas Press Association, and several other Open Government advocate organizations. 

Thankfully almost all of coalition’s Open Government priorities have been filed with companion bills in the Texas House and Senate.

The TAG Coalition legislative agenda includes:

Remote Meetings - SB 924 by Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, and HB 2683 Rep. Terry Canales, D-Edinburg

Increasingly, governmental bodies hold 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.

“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” so as 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

Access to birthdates in public records was largely cut off by a 2015 appeals court ruling expanding a prior Texas Supreme Court decision in which dates of birth in public employees’ personnel files were declared private.

Since the ruling, confusion has abounded in the inability to verify the accuracy of information when dealing with common names.

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

Knowing a birth date ensures accuracy in background checks by employers, financial institutions, and others; 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.

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

Rep. Todd Hunter, R-Corpus Christi, and Sen. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, have both indicated they will be filing legislation before the March 12 regular bill filing deadline to allow access to DOB information in government records.

Required TPIA Response / TPIA Enforcement - SB 927 by Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, and HB 3015 by Rep. Anna Hernandez, D-Houston

Under the TPIA, government agencies must provide public records to requestors promptly and without delay, and 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. Simply ignoring such public records requests should not be an option.

Searchable / Sortable Records - SB 928 by Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo; SB 729 by Sen. Nathan Johnson, D-Dallas; 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.

Enacted in January 2020, Senate Bill 943 updated the TPIA to ensure the essentials of public contracts are accessible to everyone.

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.

Nursing Homes / Infectious Diseases - SB 882 by Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, and SB 930 by Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo

During the COVID-19 outbreak, nursing homes and other long-term care facilities in Texas refused to inform the public about COVID-19 cases at their facilities.

The Texas Health and Human Services Commission also refused to disclose the names and locations of senior care and other long-term care facilities where the virus appeared, even though releasing the facilities’ identities and locations did not violate individual patient privacy. 

As nursing homes became high-risk centers for COVID-19, Texas stood out as a state with incredibly little transparency.

The Attorney General’s office later ruled that facilities must be identified. Clarifying this in law will help during future emergencies.

Open Government advocates are working to secure a House companion bill author before the March 12 regular bill filing deadline.

TPIA Omnibus - SB 923 by Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo

As it is unclear how many bills the Texas Senate will chose to consider on floor, Sen. Zaffirini has filed a “catch-all” bill that includes seven bills noted 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.

Additional Legislation

Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, passed SB 494 in 2019 in response to Hurricane Harvey.

It allows government agencies to suspend responses to TPIA requests for information up to 14 calendar days by issuing a “catastrophe notice” to the Attorney General stating a temporary halt.

More than 75 governmental bodies have filed catastrophe notices stating they would not comply with Open Records rules during the COVID-19 shutdown.

Some filed multiple ongoing catastrophe notices, extending these periods well beyond the 14-day temporary period contemplated by the Legislature when it passed SB 494.

These notices should not be used as excuses to ignore public information requests.

Sen. Huffman has indicated she will be filing legislation to tighten up this provision to prevent the abuse Open Government advocates say has happened in the past year under COVID 19.

“Sunshine Week”

This year’s “Sunshine Week” celebration takes place March 14-21. 

It is a national initiative created in 2005 and spearheaded by the News Leaders Association to educate the public about the importance of state and national Open Government laws and the danger of governmental secrecy.

The week-long celebration coincides with the March 16 birthday of First Amendment author James Madison, which is also National Freedom of Information Day.

Broadcast newsrooms are encouraged to join their print and online brethren in highlighting the need for our state and national sunshine laws and the importance of Open Government in general.

It is a great time to report on your newsroom’s difficulty with local or state governmental transparency.  

Just as important, is illuminating the public on the TAG Coalition’s legislative agenda above and why it is needed to keep taxpayers informed of their government’s actions.

It is also a great topic this month for those stations that broadcast station editorials. 

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

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