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TAB Newsroom Legislative Priorities Near Final Approvals

Less than two weeks remain in the 86th Texas Legislature and lawmakers are scrambling to get final passage on their legislative priorities for this session. TAB is right there with them seeking final approvals on our package of Open Government-themed newsroom legislative priorities. Two of those four should see action this week.

The Texas House of Representatives is expected to give final approval on Wednesday to SB 944 by Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, an omnibus Texas Public Information Act measure that refines some aspects of how the TPIA functions.

Importantly, the bill contains language of HB 1700 by Rep. Todd Hunter, R-Corpus Christi, which closes a TPIA loophole that has prevented newsrooms from getting electronic records concerning public business that are in private email accounts or held on private electronic devices.

Hunter and TAB have tried in two previous legislative sessions to fix the problem only to be stymied by time and an obstinate House committee chairman. It appears the third time, will indeed, be the charm. 

Senate lawmakers could give final approval this week to another Hunter bill, HB 1655, which says dates of birth in public records, unless statutorily or constitutionally protected, are subject to release.  

The bill was filed to address a 2015 Third Court of Appeals decision extending a common-law right of privacy to dates of birth of all Texans. 

The ruling has created numerous problems for Texas newsrooms because journalists use DOBs to differentiate between two individuals with the same or similar names. 

The other two newsroom legislative priorities, both involving taxpayer dollar transparency, are addressed in SB 943, another Watson bill.

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

SB 943 finally made it to the House Calendars committee on Monday. It is awaiting a floor date for final approval by the Texas House.

Other notable Open Government measures awaiting final action

A third Watson measure, SB 1640, is also in the House Calendars committee awaiting a floor date. It addresses a February court decision that struck down the "walking quorum" penalty as unconstitutionally vague. 

Last Thursday, the House gave final approval to 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. 

A similar TAB-backed bill died in the 2017 Legislature.  Senate lawmakers have less than two weeks to give their final approval to the bill.  Two other TAB-backed 2017 measures are back again this year.

One of them made it to Gov. Greg Abbott’s desk in 2017, only to be vetoed, but this session the Governor’s office indicated that with some revisions the measure would gain approval.

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.

It died in the House Calendars Committee last week but could be revived by attaching it to a germane House or Senate bill that is still moving, if such a vehicle can be found.

That’s also the case for HB 147 by Rep. Joe Moody, D-El Paso, which died on a 2017 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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