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TAB Newsroom Legislative Measures Take Effect Sept. 1

Two of TAB’s newsroom priority bills from the 87th Texas Legislature take effect next week on Sept. 1. Both measures improve the public’s right to know critically important information during emergencies with regard to infectious disease outbreaks and so-called catastrophe notices.

Nursing Homes/Disease Outbreaks
SB 930 by Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, defines how the Texas Public Information Act applies to nursing home and assisted living center records during infectious disease outbreaks such as COVID-19.

The bill requires local and state health authorities to release information about such outbreaks in those facilities including the names of the facilities and the numbers of residents diagnosed.                     

Texas newsrooms filed numerous TPIA requests with the Texas Health and Human Services Commission (HHSC) in the spring and summer of 2020 seeking that information, but HHSC sought to block the release of data.

HHSC argued to the Texas Attorney General’s Office that state or federal medical privacy laws prevented revealing even the names and location of nursing homes and living centers with coronavirus outbreaks and statistical data for those locations.

Some newsrooms clarified that they were not seeking individual health information – only the identity of facilities where COVID-19 had been detected.

Despite this clarification, the information was still withheld from the public.

In July 2020, the Texas Attorney General’s Office ruled that HHSC must identify the facilities that had been impacted by COVID-19, and the agency began posting the data on its website.

However, separate Attorney General rulings allowed local health authorities to withhold such information from the public under Section 81.046 of the Texas Health and Safety Code.

SB 930 prevents local and state health authorities from withholding such information in the future.

Catastrophe Notices
The other TAB newsroom priority bill, SB 1225 by Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, addresses problems created by a 2019 change to Texas’ Open Government laws.

The 2019 law, also authored by Huffman, was filed in response to Hurricane Harvey.

SB 494 allowed government agencies to suspend responses to TPIA requests for information up to 14 calendar days by issuing a “catastrophe notice” to the Attorney General stating a temporary halt.

More than 75 governmental bodies filed catastrophe notices stating they would not comply with Open Records rules during COVID-19 shutdowns.

Some filed multiple ongoing catastrophe notices, extending these periods well beyond the 14-day temporary period contemplated by the Legislature when it passed SB 494.

The new law specifies that a “catastrophe” (which includes occurrences such as floods, fires, hurricanes, epidemics, and power outages) does not apply to periods in which governmental bodies are required to work remotely but can still electronically access requested information and otherwise respond to Texas Public Information Act requests. 

SB 1225 also defines the conditions of a “catastrophe” in relation to suspension of the TPIA and how many days a catastrophe notice and extension can remain in effect. 

Under the bill, a governmental body could suspend public information requirements only once for each catastrophe and could only initiate a single extension related to the same catastrophe.

The combined suspension periods could not exceed a total of 14 consecutive calendar days.

Upon the conclusion of any suspension period, the governmental body immediately would have to resume compliance with all requirements of the Texas Public Information Act.

Except for the temporary suspension of public information requirements related to a catastrophe, a governmental body that closed its physical offices but required staff to work, including remotely, would have to make a good faith effort to continue responding to public information requests.

Failure to respond could constitute a refusal to request an attorney general's decision or a refusal to supply public information.

Click here for a list of other Texas Open Government measures taking effect Sept. 1.

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

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