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Open Records Fixes Top TAB’s Newsroom Legislative Agenda for 2019 Session

- Make or Break Year for Texas Public Information Act

Lawmakers gathered Tuesday in Austin for the start of the 86th Texas Legislature.  As they begin the 140-day legislative session, TAB’s top newsroom legislative priority is clear, restore the state’s Open Government laws to ensure Texans know how their tax dollars are being spent. 

Sound familiar?  It should as the issue represents unfinished business from the 2017 session when the Texas House failed to take up legislation approved by the Senate to restore the Texas Public Information Act which has been rendered nearly moot by two 2015 disastrous Texas Supreme Court rulings.  The court decisions have made it nearly impossible for journalists and other members of the public to get access to final contracts and other documents crucial to holding public officials accountable for how they spend tax dollars and develop public policy.

In the past year, TAB and other members of the Texas Sunshine Coalition have been laying the groundwork for the session with the goal of passing measures to mitigate the effects of the Boeing v. Paxton and Greater Houston Partnership v. Paxton court decisions.  The coalition also includes the Texas Press Association and the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, as well as a diverse group of organizations ranging from the American Civil Liberties Union to the far-right Texas Public Policy Foundation.

State Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, and state Rep. Giovani Capriglione, R-Southlake, will file legislation soon meant to address the Boeing and GHP court decisions.  Watson and Capriglione carried similar legislation in 2017.

Two other legislative concerns are carryovers from the 2017 session.  A 2015 Third Court of Appeals decision, Paxton v. City of Dallas, extended a common-law right of privacy to dates of birth of all Texans.  As a result of the court’s decision, many Texas police departments are redacting DOBs from the “basic information” that must be released when an individual is arrested or charged, thereby creating liability issues for crime reporting.  But it’s not just crime reporting that’s affected.

Journalists use DOBs to differentiate between two individuals with the same or similar names in order to be accurate.  At a minimum, the Legislature should clarify that DOBs of candidates for public office and those of individuals arrested or charged with a crime should be public.

An existing 2013 law is also in need of an update.  The measure essentially codifed what the Texas A.G.'s office had been ruling for many years – 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 requests for that information. 

The legislative fix would require a government officer or employee in possession of public records to hand that information over to the governmental body upon request.  Open government advocates believe the fix should come with a criminal penalty to act as a deterrent.  State Rep. Todd Hunter, R-Corpus Christi, has twice carried such legislation but it has yet to make it to the House floor.  TAB also remains vigilant in its defense of measures it has previously helped pass.  In recent years TAB has had to counter attacks on the 2009 reporter shield law and the 2011 Citizen Participation Act, an anti-SLAPP lawsuit measure.

In the Interim
In addition to our efforts with the Texas Sunshine Coalition, TAB has held grassroots meetings with key lawmakers over the past year to educate them on how these court rulings are hindering efforts by journalists and other members of the public to investigate corruption, hold government officials accountable and inform taxpayers on whether their dollars are being spent efficiently.

TAB also has monitored 2017 interim legislative hearings to see if there are other potential hindrances to news gathering lawmakers might be considering.  TAB is already tracking legislation that was filed in advance of the session that could potentially affect the public’s right to know how government operates.  Roughly 1,000 bills and resolutions have been filed so far.

If recent trends continue, lawmakers will file 6,000+ bills and resolutions by the time the 60-day regular filing period ends on March 8.  Typically, 15-20 percent of those measures will make it to Gov. Abbott’s desk in their original form or as part of other legislation.  On average, TAB’s Newsroom Legislative Committee monitors about 450 bills each session for their potential impact on newsgathering.

Help Lead the Fight!
TAB has been assisted in its efforts over several decades by Texas broadcast journalists who provide background information and testify before lawmakers in hearings on important pieces of legislation.

News directors and general managers also contact lawmakers at TAB’s urging to weigh in on legislation affecting Texas newsrooms.  There are two ways newsrooms can help TAB advance its newsroom legislative agenda.  News Directors and other newsroom staff should attend TAB’s biennial Legislative Day Conference in Austin on Jan. 22.

View More and Register Now

TAB will provide in-depth briefings on its newsroom legislative priorities and other legislation at the event.

The event highlight is the Lawmaker/Broadcaster Luncheon at which lawmakers are seated with their local broadcasters so they can discuss issues important to their communities and briefly review TAB’s policy interests.  Broadcaster participation in the conference is imperative to TAB’s success in the legislative session.

Additionally, news directors and newsroom staff can keep up with newsroom-related legislation by reading TAB’s weekly newsroom legislative Billwatch emails.  These informative dispatches begin Friday, Jan. 11, and will detail legislation filed by lawmakers which could impact newsgathering in Texas.

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

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