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Lawmakers Eye 2021 Open Government Legislative Agenda

- See Texas Reflected in National Crises

Although the upcoming Texas legislative session is eight months away, the two national crises are prompting Texas lawmakers to pursue reforms to state Open Government laws when the Legislature reconvenes in January.

Two Texas lawmakers, St. Reps. Todd Hunter, R-Corpus Christi and Giovanni Capriglione, R-Southlake, led a statewide online conference last week with Texas journalists and others in the Open Government community to discuss needed legislative fixes in the upcoming session.

“This is the time for the public to have access to information for their safety, protection and understanding,” Hunter wrote in a recent editorial.

“Government at all levels should be releasing information so the public has confidence and clarity as to what is happening.”

The impact of COVID-19 on governmental transparency was top of mind as he wrote the editorial and during the conference.

Nursing Home Transparency
While the State of Texas is releasing the number of nursing home patients and staff infected by COVID-19 (and COVID-19 deaths), it has to date not released the names of any nursing home facilities affected.  Federal authorities have begun releasing that information, but it is not a permanent fix to what is a state records problem. 

Texans with a loved one in a nursing home should be able to learn directly from the state government they fund (and which oversees the Texas nursing home industry) whether the nursing home in which their loved one resides is affected.

“They do need to know whether they or their loved ones are in a precarious or dangerous situation,” said Hunter who has pledged to file legislation allowing public access to timely, detailed statistical information about disease transmission and mortality rates in healthcare facilities.

Other COVID-19 Related Issues
A bill from the 2019 session that allows local government to suspend compliance with certain aspects of the Texas Open Meetings Act and Texas Public Information Act during an emergency such as Hurricane Harvey has created problems for those seeking to keep tabs on local government during the very different kind of emergency seen with the COVID-19 pandemic.

It was meant to allow a temporary suspension, but several jurisdictions have suspended compliance repeatedly since the March statewide shutdown occurred. 

Hunter and Capriglione also noted there has been a lack of urgency for governmental entities to process public information requests.

Claiming they are incapable of accessing certain types of information remotely, government employees have been lax about responding to Texas Public Information Act requests.  

Open Government advocates say if governmental employees can operate remotely, as many have been doing, there really isn’t a reason why requests cannot be satisfied electronically. 

Deaths in Police Custody
The controversy surrounding the death of Texas native George Floyd while in the custody of Minneapolis police has renewed discussion of strengthening the Sandra Bland Act and revisiting law enforcement transparency in general.

Open Government advocates have been thwarted in their efforts to gain access to more information regarding in-custody deaths.

St. Rep. Joe Moody, D-El Paso, carried legislation in the 2017 and 2019 sessions which would grant more access, only to be stymied by stiff opposition from law enforcement groups, such as the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas (CLEAT).

After emotional committee testimony, the 2017 bill was headed to the House floor, but bill deadlines stopped it in its tracks.

During the 2019 session, CLEAT declined to meet with Moody to develop a consensus bill addressing the issue. 

That did not sit well with Moody, a former El Paso County prosecutor, and other lawmakers.

“There’s a philosophical shift that we have to undertake next session,” Moody recently told the Houston Chronicle.

“Being told that we can’t even have a conversation about it, that is a nonstarter. We are going to have a conversation about this.”

TAB Joins Policy Oversight Reform Letter
TAB this week signed onto a letter drafted by the National Freedom of Information Coalition and the Brechner Center for Freedom of Information in support of police oversight reform efforts across the country.

The statement calls trust a key-element in police-citizen relationships because it encourages increased transparency of records related to oversight of law enforcement.

“More public oversight in law enforcement leads to better policing, which leads to better public safety and stronger communities.”

The statement goes on to say that “effective oversight of law enforcement requires meaningfully improving the flow of information to the public, both as a matter of law and as a matter of culture.”

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

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