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Two TAB Newsroom Bills Dodge Session’s Closing Strife

- Nursing Home Transparency, Catastrophe Notices

The 87th Texas Legislature came to an abrupt halt on Sunday evening as House Democratic lawmakers walked out of a floor session, robbing House leaders of the needed quorum to vote on SB 7, a controversial elections bill authored by Sen. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola.

The move killed the bill, a legislative priority of Gov. Greg Abbott, R-Austin, due to a House bill approval deadline.

Abbott vowed there would be a special session to pass the measure and threatened a gubernatorial line-item veto of lawmakers’ salaries in retaliation for the walkout.

He has until June 20, to follow through on the latter.

This legislative session was without a doubt, the weirdest session TAB has ever encountered.  

The Legislature was significantly impacted by COVID-19 and the unforeseen statewide emergency brought on by the failure of the state’s electrical grid during Winter Storm Uri. 

Those two policy areas alone dominated the session and kept many bills from advancing.   

Sadly, it appeared lawmakers had no interest in bringing more transparency to the Texas electric grid’s operations, nor more accountability to law enforcement operations by requiring release of police records, be they files or body cam recordings.

TAB Measures Become Law
Two of TAB’s newsroom priority bills became law with the stroke of Abbott’s pen and both go into effect on Sept. 1 of this year.

SB 930 by Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, requires state and local health authorities to provide information on infectious disease outbreaks at nursing homes and other in-state long-term care facilities.

The bill was filed in response to the inability of newsrooms and Texas citizens who, as the COVID-19 pandemic struck nursing homes and other long-term care centers in 2020, sought answers about whether these facilities were safe for those facilities’ residents.

As the public quickly found out last year, many Texas nursing homes were not forthcoming with information about coronavirus outbreaks at such facilities.

To make a difficult situation worse, family members and journalists seeking similar information from state and local health officials, were also stymied.

Newsrooms filing Texas Public Information Act requests with the Texas Health and Human Services Commission (HHSC) saw their requests denied and the HHSC move to block the release of data.

HHSC argued to the Texas Attorney General’s Office that state or federal medical privacy laws prevented revealing even the names and location of nursing homes and living centers with coronavirus outbreaks. 

The Texas Attorney General’s Office eventually ruled that HHSC must identify the facilities that had been impacted by COVID-19, and the agency began posting the data on its website, but separate Attorney General rulings allowed local health authorities to withhold such information from the public under Section 81.046 of the Texas Health and Safety Code.

SB 930 specifies that the identity and location of a nursing home or assisted living facility where residents have been diagnosed with a communicable disease and the number of residents diagnosed is not confidential and is subject to disclosure under the Texas Public Information Act.

Codifying this in law will prevent information roadblocks in emergencies yet to come.

The other bill to become law, SB 1225 by Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, was signed by Gov. Abbott late last week.

It addresses abuses of a 2019 Huffman-authored law that codified what had been a long-standing informal practice of allowing governmental entities, on rare occasions, to temporarily suspend responding to open records requests by filing “catastrophe notices” with the Texas Attorney General’s Office.   

SB 1225 specifies 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.  

It also defines 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.

Past TAB chairman, Rep. Chris Paddie, R-Marshall, was the House sponsor of SB 1225 and authored the House companion bill.

Paddie chairs the powerful House State Affairs Committee which heard both bills.

Status of other newsroom priority bills House lawmakers were incensed that of the 1,250 House bills that did advance to the upper chamber, 100 were never referred to a Senate committee, and 450 were never heard by a Senate committee. 

Count several TAB newsroom priority bills as part of that 550.

Five of those bills addressing Open Government policy concerns received unanimous or near unanimous approval by the Texas House.  

These include TAB-advocated measures to:

  • Address “remote meeting” problems that have occurred as more open meetings moved online during the pandemic.  (HB 2683 Rep. Terry Canales, D-Edinburg)
  • Prevent abuse of the “skeleton crew” loophole in the tolling of 10 business days in which governmental bodies must respond to TPIA requests.  (HB 1416 by Rep. Giovanni Capriglione, R-Southlake)
  • Allow the release of dates of birth contained in governmental records unless prevented by constitutional or other federal or state law (HB 3535 by Rep. Todd Hunter, R-Corpus Christi)
  • Require governmental bodies to notify requestors if there are no records responsive to a TPIA request for information, OR, if the entity was withholding requested information based upon reliance on a previous AG TPIA decision. (HB 3015 by Rep. Ana Hernandez, D-Houston)
  • Require release of electronic public information in a searchable and sortable format (such as an Excel spreadsheet) if that information is maintained in that manner.  (HB 1810 by Rep. Giovanni Capriglione, R-Southlake)

Two companion bills addressing the final TAB Open Government policy concern died without either bill ever receiving a committee hearing.  HB 2913 by Rep. Giovanni Capriglione, R-Southlake, and SB 929 by Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, would have required the online posting of many types of government contracts to promote the transparency of taxpayer-funded purchases or services by governmental bodies.

Broadcasters’ Service Key to Legislative Successes
Passing legislation is the work of many individuals, including our member stations’ staff who showed their willingness to contact local lawmakers when asked to do so by TAB during the past five months.

TAB also thanks the following broadcasters and attorneys for their work to advance TAB’s newsroom priority bills, through their service on TAB’s Newsroom Legislative Committee, testimony before House or Senate committees, or meetings they conducted with lawmakers and broadcasters in their home districts to discuss bills:

  • Stacy Allen, Jackson Walker LLP
  • Jaie Avila, WOAI-TV San Antonio
  • Rob Cartwright, KEYE-TV Austin
  • Steve Eberhart, KGAF-AM Gainesville
  • Joe Ellis, KVUE-TV Austin
  • Dan Jackson, KCBD-TV Lubbock
  • Wes Lewis, formerly of Haynes Boone LLP
  • Laura Prather, Haynes Boone LLP
  • Pat Stacey, KLTV-TV Tyler-Longview
  • Avery Travis, KXAN-TV Austin
  • Luis Villarreal, KGNS-TV Laredo

TAB also appreciates the efforts of its partners in the fight to preserve Open Government in Texas, the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, and the Texas Press Association.

The 87th Texas Legislature, By the Numbers
Texas lawmakers filed 7,385 bills and resolutions this year, compared to the 7,851 they filed in 2019.  

Of those, TAB’s Newsroom Legislative Committee tracked 476 bills with a potential impact on newsgathering and government transparency, down from the record 635 bills the committee tracked in 2019.

Of the 476, fewer than 75 made it to Gov. Abbott’s desk.

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

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