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Open Government Bills Getting Their Day in House and Senate Committees

TAB’s newsroom legislative priority bills have almost all had their committee hearings – and before the end of March, no less. That’s a marked difference from the 2017 legislative session which saw a House committee chairman delay as long as possible hearings on House Open Government measures, thereby strangling any chance of their passage. That’s not happening this time in the Texas Legislature and that’s good news for newsrooms.

Early committee hearings greatly improve the odds that TAB’s efforts to restore both the Texas Public Information Act and the Texas Open Meetings Act, both of which have been severely weakened by adverse Texas court decisions, will see legislative action this year.

The Senate and House committee hearings on these measures have, thus far, been uniformly positive with little opposition testimony.

Senate Committee Hearings
This week Senate committees heard and left pending two of TAB’s planned priority bills and a third bill which was added to the mix after a bad Texas court decision just a few weeks ago.

On Monday, the Senate State Affairs Committee considered SB 1640 by Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, a bill to address a Feb. 27 Texas Court of Criminal Appeals decision which struck down the "walking quorum" penalty in the Texas Open Meetings Act as unconstitutionally vague.

On Tuesday, the Senate Business and Commerce Committee took testimony on two additional Watson measures, SB 943 and SB 944.  SB 943 is a transparency measure meant to offset the damage done by two 2015 Texas Supreme Court decisions, Boeing v. Paxton and Greater Houston Partnership v. Paxton, that have gutted the public’s ability to see how taxpayer dollars are spent.

SB 944 is a TPIA omnibus bill addressing several facets of how the TPIA functions.  It includes elements of a House bill, HB 1700 by State Rep. Todd Hunter, R-Corpus Christi, that address a Texas Public Information Act loophole.

Watson, Hunter and TAB want 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. 

SB 944 and HB 1700 would amend the existing law by requiring a government officer or employee to turn over those records.  Perhaps the third time will be the charm for HB 1700, which Hunter carried in the 2015 and 2017 sessions.  

House Committee Hearings
Last week, the House State Affairs Committee took testimony on HB 2189 and HB 2191, both by Rep. Giovanni Capriglione, R-Southlake, the House companion bills to SB 943 and SB 944.

WOAI-TV San Antonio investigative reporter Jaie Avila testified for TAB in both the House and Senate committee hearings, noting that stories he used to report on the economic incentives local governments offered to lure, keep or grow businesses in the area are all but impossible to do now because of adverse court rulings.

Hunter, a member of the State Affairs Committee, laid out HB 1700 and another TAB newsroom legislative priority bill, HB 1655.  HB 1655 would offset the effects of a 2015 Third Court of Appeals decision, Paxton v. City of Dallas, that extended a common-law right of privacy to dates of birth of all Texans.  Journalists use DOBs to differentiate between two individuals with the same or similar names. 

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.  There are a host of other businesses that also use DOBs for that same reason, and as the committee also heard in testimony, even genealogists have a need for them.  HB 1655 says dates of birth in public records, unless statutorily or constitutionally protected, are subject to release.  

On the House Floor
Last Thursday the Texas House voted 142-0 to approve HB 81 by Rep. Terry Canales, D-Edinburg, a bill that narrowly addresses the release of information related to government contracts for publicly-funded events such as parades and concerts. 

It stems from the application of the Boeing court decision to shield records for a 2015 publicly-funded Enrique Iglesias holiday concert.  Not reported in a plethora of news coverage on the bill’s passage was a second reading floor amendment by Rep. Briscoe Cain, R-Houston, that expanded the reach of HB 81 to publicly-funded events, regardless of whether they are open to the public.  

While this would open more publicly funded events to transparency, the bill accomplishes just a small fraction of what HB 2189/SB 943 does in terms of addressing the Boeing and GHP decisions.  HB 81 now goes to the Senate for consideration.

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

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