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Open Government Bills Advance as Legislative Session’s End Nears

- Most TAB Initiatives Gaining Support

With 34 days left in the 87th Texas Legislature, all but one of TAB ‘s Open Government legislative initiatives have been heard and approved by a House or Senate committee, and two have moved from one chamber to the other.

House lawmakers head into the final four full weeks of the session, facing lengthy calendars and floor sessions as state representatives race to beat the first of three significant House bill deadlines for those bills already approved by a House committee.

May 13 is the last day for a House bill to get its second reading on a House calendar.

Most House bills, other than those destined for a date on a local calendar, are effectively dead if they have not had their initial house vote by that date.

One can look for a germane bill to amend that is still moving, but the pickings get slim as the end date of the session approaches.

TAB and other members of the Transparency and Accountability in Government Coalition, such as the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas and the Texas Press Association, are actively lobbying the House Calendars Committee to get the following measures on a House calendar as quickly as possible:

Catastrophe Notice
HB 3627 by Rep. Chris Paddie, R-Marshall, and SB 1225 by Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, are companion bills that specify 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.

These measures are meant to address abuses of a 2019 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.   

Both bills have cleared their respective committees and are now seeking approval by either the full House or full Senate.

SB 1225 could see its Senate floor as early as this week.

“Skeleton Crews” / Remote Work
HB 1416 by Rep. Giovanni Capriglione, R-Southlake, and SB 925 by Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, are companion bills that 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.

This was another practice allowed by the TPIA that has been abused during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

HB 1416 has cleared the House State Affairs Committee and is awaiting a date on a House calendar.

Dates of Birth (DOB) Verification
HB 3535 by Rep. Todd Hunter, R-Corpus Christi, and SB 926 by Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, are companion bills allowing the release of dates of birth contained in governmental records unless prevented by constitutional or other federal or state law.

They would address two Texas court decisions that have caused confusion on the release of DOBs, leading to more than 10,000 requests for an Attorney General ruling in the past four years.

HB 3535 was approved by the House State Affairs Committee this month and is awaiting a date on a House calendar.

Required TPIA Response / TPIA Enforcement
HB 3015 by Rep. Ana Hernandez, D-Houston, and SB 927 by Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, are companion bills requiring governmental bodies to notify requestors if there are no records responsive to a TPIA request for information, or, if the entity is withholding requested information based upon reliance on a previous AG TPIA decision.

HB 3015 has cleared the House State Affairs Committee and is awaiting a date on a House calendar.

Searchable / Sortable Records
HB 1810 by Rep. Giovanni Capriglione, R-Southlake, and SB 928 by Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, require the release of electronic public information in a searchable and sortable format (such as an Excel spreadsheet) if that information is maintained in that manner. 

Additionally, the 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.

HB 1810 was approved by the House State Affairs Committee this month and is awaiting a date on a House calendar.

Two other measures addressing TAG Coalition priorities have passed their originating chamber are and are awaiting the other chamber’s committee hearing:

Remote Meetings
HB 2683 Rep. Terry Canales, D-Edinburg, addresses problems that have occurred as open meetings have moved online during the pandemic. 

It ensures public participation in such meetings whether a participant is attending or testifying via laptop, or by telephone. 

The bill should be referred this week to a Senate committee for consideration.

Nursing Homes / Infectious Diseases
SB 930 by Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, requires state and local health authorities to provide certain types of information concerning an infectious disease outbreak at a nursing home or other long-term care facility.

Releasable information would include the name and location of the facility, as well as the number of patients involved at that facility.

The bill has been referred to the House Human Services and Public Health Committee and is awaiting a public hearing.

The committee recently approved HB 3306 by Rep. Mays Middleton, R-Wallisville, which requires local health authorities to release such information.

It is awaiting consideration by the full House.

Government Contracts Online
One Open Government initiative has failed to get consideration at the committee hearing level.

SB 929 by Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, and HB 2913 by Rep. Giovanni Capriglione, R-Southlake, are companion bills requiring the online posting of many types of government contracts to promote the transparency of taxpayer-funded purchases or services by governmental bodies.

Both bills were referred to House and Senate committees in March, but neither has been granted a committee hearing.

TAB and other TAG Coalition members are looking for ways to revive these bills.

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

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