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TAB Newsroom Legislative Agenda on Path to May Final Passage

With less than four weeks remaining in the 86th Texas Legislature, all four of TAB’s newsroom legislative priorities have moved from one chamber to the other and are on a path to final passage this month.

TAB has worked this session to advance bills addressing four key issues affecting newsrooms and the public’s ability to hold government accountable:

  • Taxpayers have a right to view final government contracts with private companies
  • Taxpayers have a right to know how non-profit entities essentially acting as an arm of the government are spending tax dollars
  • Dates of birth contained in public records should, in most cases, be open to the public so that proper identity can be confirmed
  • Public business conducted in private electronic accounts – already classified as a public record – must be publicly accessible

Legislation addressing these concerns has advanced in both the House and Senate.

Texas House lawmakers approved HB 1655 by Rep. Todd Hunter, R-Corpus Christi, last Thursday in a 127-3 vote.  Reps. Terry Canales, D-Edinburg; Poncho Nevarez, D-Eagle Pass; and Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford, cast the “no” votes.

HB 1655 is a Texas Public Information Act clarification that says dates of birth in public records, unless statutorily or constitutionally protected, are subject to release.  

A 2015 Third Court of Appeals decision, however, extended a common-law right of privacy to dates of birth of all Texans. This has created numerous problems for Texas newsrooms because journalists use DOBs to differentiate between two individuals with the same or similar names. 

The release of social security numbers in Texas public records, another identifier once used to differentiate between like named individuals, was prohibited by law more than 20 years ago.

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  The Senate Business and Commerce Committee has already heard the Senate companion measure, SB 1318 by Sen. Nathan Johnson, D-Dallas, and left the bill pending.

SB 944 by Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, a so-called omnibus bill addressing several facets of how the TPIA functions, moved out of the House State Affairs Committee last week and is awaiting its House floor vote.

It includes elements of HB 1700 by Rep. Hunter which address a TPIA loophole that has prevented newsrooms from getting records concerning public business that are in private email accounts or held on a private electronic device. 

The final bill addressing TAB’s newsroom legislative concerns could clear its House committee this week.

SB 943 by Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, would correct much of the damage created by two Texas Supreme Court decisions in 2015, Boeing v. Paxton and Greater Houston Partnership v. Paxton

The two court rulings have made it nearly impossible for the public to see how taxpayer dollars are spent. 

The House version of the bill, HB 2189 by Rep. Giovanni Capriglione, R-Southlake, has already cleared the committee.

Watson and Capriglione met with Gov. Greg Abbott, R-Austin, last week to discuss the measures and Abbott expressed his support.  

Other notable Open Government measures await Texas House floor votes

Several Open Government bills are awaiting their Texas House floor votes after being approved by the House State Affairs Committee.

Two of the measures were advocated by TAB in the 2017 Legislature and the third was required by a recent negative Texas Court of Criminal Appeals decision:

  • SB 1640 by Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, addresses the February court decision which struck down the "walking quorum" penalty as unconstitutionally vague.  The House companion bill, HB 3402 by Rep. Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, has already been approved by the committee and is awaiting a date on a House calendar.  Expect SB 1640 to be substituted for the House bill on the floor.
  • HB 4132 by Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, D-Austin, a bill requiring governmental bodies to provide public information in a format acceptable to the requestor, including in a searchable and sortable format, if requested that way. Newsrooms have been hampered when TPIA requests have been answered in the form of an unsearchable and unsortable PDF document. Senate Business and Commerce has yet to hear SB 1317 by Sen. Nathan Johnson, D-Dallas, the Senate companion measure.
  • HB 3457 by Rep. John Smithee, R-Amarillo, would end a long-lamented practice by governmental bodies of needlessly sticking requestors with a hefty legal bill when seeking release of information. Under current law, a court can assess litigation costs and reasonable attorney fees to a requestor if they substantially prevail in a lawsuit to force release of information. In some cases, however, governmental bodies have disingenuously elected to release the information on the eve of trial, well after the requestor has spent tens of thousands of dollars in legal costs to win the information’s release. TAB and other Open Government advocates tried to pass similar legislation in the 2017 session, but it was vetoed by Gov. Abbott.  TAB Newsroom Legislative Committee member Laura Prather, an attorney with TAB Associate member law firm Haynes Boone LLP, met earlier this year with the Governor’s office and was encouraged to refile a bill with slightly revised language to gain approval.
  • HB 147 by Rep. Joe Moody, D-El Paso, is another Texas Public Information Act bill that gained traction last year, only to die on a House calendar when it missed a bill deadline.  It would allow access to law enforcement information in cases in which all suspects involved are deceased. Under Section 552.108 of the Texas Public Information Act, law enforcement materials do not have to be released if there is a pending investigation or unless there is a final court outcome. There won’t be a final court outcome, however, if a suspect in a case is deceased. Several high-profile investigations remain “active” cases even though the only suspect in the case is deceased.

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

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