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Open Government Advocates Celebrate 50 Years of the TPIA

- Working to Strengthen Texas’ Open Records Law 

The venerable Texas Public Information Act celebrates its 50th anniversary of passage this year.

Originally known as the Texas Open Records Act, it was once considered a model Open Records law, but decades of tinkering and court rulings have led to an erosion of records requestors’ right of access. 

TAB and other Open Government advocates are working this session to give the law some teeth and shore up some of the previous legislative damage.

Next week marks the March 12-18, 2023 observation of national “Sunshine Week,” a celebration of state and national transparency laws and the public’s use of them to hold government  accountable to taxpayers.

As this is happening, there have been other recent reminders of how Texas’ Open Records law came to be in 1973.

Former Texas House Speaker Gus Mutscher, D-Brenham, passed away Feb. 26 at the age of 90.

Mutscher served as Speaker amid a genuine Texas legislative imbroglio involving influence peddling and personal financial enrichment at the Capitol.

Frank Sharp, a Houston banker, had arranged lucrative stock purchases for key lawmakers as favors for passing beneficial banking legislation that benefitted him.

It became known as the Sharpstown scandal, its name coming from one of Sharp’s business entities, Sharpstown State Bank.

Indictments came down against several Texas elected officials as the 1971 legislature began.

Mutscher was convicted of conspiring to accept a bribe and resigned in 1972 only to be cleared of the charge on appeal.

Another reminder?

St. Rep. Rayford Price, D-Palestine, who briefly succeeded Mutscher as Speaker, passed away Feb. 21.

The Sharpstown scandal led to a wholesale turnover of elected officials in the 1972 election, from statewide office to statehouse posts.

A bipartisan group of lawmakers hellbent on changing each chamber’s rules and enacting transparency reforms returned to the statehouse in 1973.

They were encouraged by a new Lt. Governor, House Speaker, and Attorney General – Democrats Bill Hobby, D-Houston; Price Daniel, Jr., D-Liberty; and John Hill, D-Austin.

The transparency reform efforts of the 1973 session led to the creation of what is now known as the Texas Public Information Act, as well as improvements to the Texas Open Meetings Act whose genesis was in the late 1960s.  

Campaign finance disclosure laws also were vastly improved.

TPIA Changes Being Sought

Defending the TPIA has become a time-honored tradition for TAB and other “usual suspects” in Open Government advocacy, namely, the Texas Press Association and the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas.

TAB and these groups are working this session to improve the TPIA, seeking changes in five priority areas. 

Contracting Transparency

Clarify state law to ensure that local and state officials expedite the release of statutorily designated “super public” information such as the dollar value and descriptions of goods and services.

Public Information Requests & Remote Work Policies

Amend the Texas Public Information Act to clearly define what constitutes a “business day” under the Act to ensure the timely response to public information requests and that officials honor their obligation to respond to all requestors whether working remotely or not.

Searchable-Sortable Records

Codify guidance from the Texas Attorney General’s office directing government officials to release public information stored in spreadsheets in their original format, rather than converting them to PDF images that cannot be easily searched and analyzed.

Dates of Birth

Protect Texans’ privacy and safety by ensuring public access to dates of birth records in criminal justice 
and electoral candidate documents.

Texas Public Information Act/Attorney Fees

Require governmental agencies pay requestor’s attorney fees when these entities voluntarily release 
records after a suit has been filed.

If enacted, these legislative initiatives would strengthen Texas’ government transparency law and help foster public trust in government.
TAB Member station managers and newsroom staff can keep abreast of Open Government legislative developments this session by signing up for TAB’s weekly newsroom legislative Billwatch email.

Contact TAB’s Michael Schneider to subscribe or call (512) 322-9944.

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