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Lawmakers to Consider TAB Newsroom Legislative Priority Bills This Week

The House State Affairs Committee will take testimony this week on most of TAB’s newsroom legislative priority bills, in sharp contrast to the 2017 session when TAB’s Open Government measures were heard near the end of April.

House bill deadlines can doom measures the later they are heard in the session, so this week’s scheduled hearing is a positive and welcome development.  Recent destructive Texas court rulings and 20 years of legislative erosion have severely weakened the Texas Public Information Act.

The four bills being considered by the committee would do much to improve the state of the TPIA and would address the following transparency issues: 

  • Taxpayers have a right to view final government contracts with private companies
  • Taxpayers have a right to know how non-profit entities essentially acting as an arm of the government are spending tax dollars
  • Dates of birth contained in public records should, in most cases, be open to the public so that proper identity can be confirmed
  • Public business conducted in private electronic accounts – already classified as a public record – must be publicly accessible

On March 20, the committee will take public testimony on the bills listed below.   

Government Contracting
HB 2189 by Rep. Giovanni Capriglione, R-Southlake

This transparency measure is meant to offset the damage done by two 2015 Texas Supreme Court decisions that have gutted the public’s ability to see how taxpayer dollars are spent.

The Texas Supreme Court’s Boeing v. Paxton decision ruled that companies doing business with government could seek to have their contracts and other information in government custody withheld from the public based on a claim that releasing the documents would create a competitive disadvantage.  

Previously, only governments could assert the competitive bidding TPIA exception during the competitive bidding process. 

In less than four years, there have been more than 2,700 Attorney General’s office rulings in which some or all the requested information has been kept hidden because of the Boeing ruling.

In the Greater Houston Partnership v. Paxton ruling, the public’s right to know was limited regarding how non‐profit entities supported by public funds spend taxpayer money.  The court overturned a test that had stood for more than 30 years when it comes to accessing information under the Texas Public Information Act. 

The GHP, which performs economic development duties for the City of Houston, didn’t want taxpayers to see how it was spending their money.  Now other non‐profits relying on taxpayer dollars are closing off information, too.  

Importantly, TAB doesn’t want all non‐profits to be covered by the TPIA ‐ only the government‐funded portions of non‐profits that are supported by taxpayer dollars and perform duties traditionally carried out by government agencies.

Texas Public Information Act Omnibus
HB 2191 by Rep. Giovanni Capriglione, R-Southlake

This TPIA omnibus bill addresses several facets of how the TPIA functions and includes elements of HB 1700 (noted below) that address the TPIA loophole which has prevented newsrooms from getting records concerning public business that are in private email accounts or held on a private electronic device. 

Dates of Birth
HB 1655 by Rep. Todd Hunter, R-Corpus Christi

Journalists use DOBs to differentiate between two individuals with the same or similar names. 

A 2015 Third Court of Appeals decision, Paxton v. City of Dallas, extended a common-law right of privacy to dates of birth of all Texans.  The court based its decision on an earlier Texas Supreme Court decision which held public employee dates of birth could be withheld from the public.  

Some Texas police departments are now redacting DOBs from the “basic information” that must be released when an individual is arrested or charged, thereby creating liability issues for crime reporting.  

TAB is seeking a clarification in law that DOBs, unless statutorily or constitutionally protected, are subject to release. 

Government Records Stored in Officials’ Personal Accounts/Custodian of Records
HB 1700 by Rep. Todd Hunter, R-Corpus Christi

TAB wants to clarify a 2013 law that said public business, even if it is conducted on private electronic devices or in private email accounts, is public record. 

Some public officials, however, are refusing to provide these materials to the governmental body to satisfy the Texas Public Information Act requests for that information.  HB 1700 would amend the existing law by requiring a government officer or employee to turn over those records.  

TAB is aligned with more than 20 other organizations in the Texas Sunshine Coalition, a group working to pass these measures in the 86th Texas Legislature. 

This week’s House committee hearing comes on the heels of Sunshine Week, a nationwide effort by newsrooms to point out the importance of Open Records and Open Meetings laws.

Several Texas newsrooms used the past week to illuminate the current sad state of the TPIA, most notably, a joint KTRK-TV/Houston Chronicle effort on the alarming number of TPIA request rejections.  

KTRK investigative reporter Ted Oberg and investigative producer Keaton Fuchs researched 200,000+ Texas Attorney General’s Office opinions to see how often the AG turns down all or some of a TPIA request for information. 

The answer?  About 95 percent of the time.  Help is clearly needed to strengthen the TPIA in favor of requestors.

In another development this week, Texas House members will consider their first TPIA-related measure on the House floor, HB 81 by Rep. Terry Canales, D-Edinburg, a bill that very narrowly addresses the release of information related to government contracts for parades and concerts. 

It stems from the application of the Boeing decision to shield records for a 2015 publicly-funded City of McAllen holiday concert featuring Enrique Iglesias.  While passage of this bill would be helpful, it does not go nearly as far as what is needed to address the Boeing decision. 

The more comprehensive fix is HB 2189, one of the bills noted above that’s up for its House committee hearing this week.  Typically, the House State Affairs Committee holds measures for a week after their hearing before voting on them.

Broadcasters are urged to weigh-in with their support of these measures with the State Affairs Committee.  Contacting your local lawmakers serving on the committee now can help TAB to have positive news on some or all of these measures before the month is out.

TAB emailed lawmaker contact information last Friday to stations located in the DMAs of the committee’s members.

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

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