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Open Government, media forces brace for legislative onslaught

TAB is already monitoring legislation filed in advance of the 84th Texas Legislature that could potentially affect the public's right to know how government operates.

TAB will be joined in the fight to preserve newsrooms' rights by the Texas Press Association and the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas.

Roughly 1,000 bills and resolutions will be pre-filed before the Legislature convenes next week on Jan. 13.  Of those, TAB is tracking more than 70 which could have an impact on newsrooms' ability to cover their local communities.  If recent trends continue, lawmakers will file 6,000+ bills and resolutions by the time the 60 day regular filing period ends on March 13. 

The trend of increased financial transparency bills continues from last session, but one emerging this session is the number of law enforcement related transparency bills.  True to form, some measures already have been filed that would erode the Texas Public Information Act, but there are several TPIA and Texas Open Meetings Act friendly bills that also have been filed.  The TPIA and TOMA are the two laws on the books that promote government transparency.

Bills of note

Several law enforcement related bills have been filed that seek to scrutinize or provide transparency of law enforcement operations.  Some of these are measures that have been filed in the past such as HB 48 by Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon, D-San Antonio, and SB 81 by Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, both of which create a state exoneration review commission to review potential wrongful convictions.  McClendon’s bill passed the House in the 2013 session, but died in Senate committee.

Lawmakers have filed three bills requiring police, primarily those involved with traffic enforcement or patrol, to wear so-called “body cameras” which record officers’ interaction with the public.  These include HB 455 by Rep. Eric Johnson, D-Dallas, HB 474 by Rep. Ron Reynolds, D-Missouri City and SB 158 by Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas.  Several Texas metropolitan police departments have been using the cameras on an experimental basis.  The measures filed differ in recording retention periods.  One of the bills expressly makes the camera recordings public information subject to release.  HB 455 and SB 158 do not expressly preclude release of the recordings.  Any such release authorized by any of the bills would likely be subject to the so-called “law enforcement exception” of the TPIA, section 552.108,  which allows police departments to withhold information if it is part of an ongoing investigation.

Two bills have been filed that would require law enforcement to record custodial interrogations involving serious crimes such as murder.  Such recordings would be subject to the TPIA law enforcement exception.  These include HB 541 by Rep. Terry Canales, D-Edinburg, and SB 181 by Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston.

Canales also has filed a bill requiring a two-year trial by the Texas Supreme Court and Texas Court of Criminal Appeals to make a video/audio recording of each oral argument, proceeding and open meeting of each court.  The recordings would be posted on each court’s website. HJR 62 would require approval by Texas voters if passed by the Texas Legislature.

TAB and others typically have to fight measures preventing release of, or sealing of, criminal history information.  Four measures already have been filed in this category. HB 329 by Rep. Gene Wu, D-Houston, SB 128 and SB 130 by Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, would allow closing off access to criminal history information of non-serious crimes. Both are former prosecutors. 

HB 477 by Rep. Harold Dutton, D-Houston, is a measure refiled from several previous legislative sessions that would require the DPS to inform an individual in its criminal history database by mail if the DPS discloses to someone or some entity that the individual has criminal history. The notification must also say what exactly was provided by the DPS.

Several measures have been filed in the area of improper photography, release of video recordings or photographs or voyeurism.   Several of the bills were filed in response to last year’s Texas Court of Criminal Appeals ruling which tossed out the state law banning “improper photography” – photos or videos taken in a public place with the purpose of sexual gratification.  On their face, none appears to impact newsrooms’ ability to capture or publish video or photographs, but TAB knows from past experience that such bills must be watched as they journey through the legislative process because of the potential for unintended consequences of bill language.   The measures include HB 101 by Rep. Ryan Guillen, D-Rio Grande City; HB 147 by Rep. Jose Menendez, D-San Antonio; HB 207 by Rep. Jeff Leach, R-Plano; and HB 496 by Rep. Mary Gonzalez, D-Clint. 

Compared to the 2013 Legislature, far fewer financial transparency measures have been filed but it’s early in the session and more will likely be filed. Bills filed so far require the online posting of government and candidate financial information. These include HB 317 by Rep. Mark Keough, R-The Woodlands, and HB 485 and HB 486 by Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin. TAB anticipates that the Greater Houston Partnership may seek legislative relief to a Texas court ruling upheld by the Texas Supreme Court which said information related to economic development funded by local government was subject to release under the TPIA. GHP attempted to exempt economic development entities from the TPIA altogether in a bill filed two sessions ago.

Two bills seek to curb the timeframe by which former members of the Texas Legislature may begin lobbying. These are HB 213 by Rep. Angie Chen Button, R-Garland, and HB 314 by Rep. Pat Fallon, R-Frisco.

In the area of Open Government, Rep. Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford, is back with a measure from last session that does away with the newspaper notice publication requirement by local government. HB 139 would allow local government to satisfy the requirement in Texas law by providing notice on a government website. The bill cleared its House committee in the 2013 Legislature but died in the House Calendars Committee.

Two other measures, HB 283 by Rep. Pat Fallon, R-Frisco, and SB 27 by Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, would require certain branches of government to stream their open meetings on the Internet and to archive them on the local government’s website for later viewing.

How newsrooms can help

Newsrooms can be part of the Open Government fight by staying informed of legislation in the session and by calling local lawmakers when asked to do so.  TAB will e-mail news directors the TAB newsroom legislative Billwatch each Friday, starting Jan. 16.  Billwatch is a summary of bills filed at the Legislature which could positively or negatively affect station newsgathering.  TAB distributes the same information to newsrooms via the Texas Associated Press broadcast wire.  Newsroom personnel also can receive the weekly update by email by contacting TAB’s Michael Schneider.

Newsroom managers and other staff also should register and attend TAB’s Legislative Day conference in Austin on Jan. 26.   TAB will present information on major state policy concerns as well as its newsroom and business-related legislative agenda for the 2015 session.

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

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