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TAB Open Government Efforts Gain Steam at Texas Legislature

Efforts to repair damage done by recent Texas court decisions to the Texas Open Meetings Act and the Texas Public Information are making solid headway as seven weeks remain in the Texas Legislature.

TAB and other Open Government groups are well-positioned to pass significant TOMA and TPIA reforms this year in marked contrast to a detrimental and depressing 2017 legislative session.

The Texas Senate could vote later this week on SB 1640 by Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, a bill that addresses the Court of Criminal Appeals TOMA decision which struck down the "walking quorum" penalty as unconstitutionally vague. 

SB 1640 and its House companion, HB 3402 by Rep. Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, clarify this criminal provision in the Act. 

HB 3402 was heard and approved last week by the House State Affairs Committee.

These companion bills were both passed by their respective committees in matching form, which could make SB 1640’s forward movement even more rapid should Senate lawmakers approve the measure.  A potential fix for this disastrous February court decision could be on Gov. Abbott’s desk before the end of April.  That would be a remarkably speedy response by the Legislature to yet another bad Texas Open Government court decision.  Efforts by TAB and the Texas Sunshine Coalition to fix two other bad court decisions are also making significant progress.

SB 943 by Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, and HB 2189 by Rep. Giovanni Capriglione, R-Southlake, are companion transparency measures meant to offset the damage done by two 2015 Texas Supreme Court decisions, Boeing v. Paxton and Greater Houston Partnership v. Paxton, that have gutted the public’s ability to see how taxpayer dollars are spent.  

Both bills were approved by their respective House and Senate committees last week.  Those committees also approved Watson’s SB 944 and Capriglione’s HB 2189, companion TPIA omnibus bills addressing several facets of how the TPIA functions. 

They include language from HB 1700 by Rep. Todd Hunter, R-Corpus Christi, a bill that addresses a TPIA loophole that prevents the public from getting records concerning public business that are in private officeholder email accounts or held on their private electronic devices.

SB 943 and SB 944 could potentially see Senate floor action later this week.

Speaking of HB 1700, it was also approved by the House State Affairs Committee last week.  TAB’s other newsroom legislative priority, an effort to regain access to dates of birth contained in governmental records (unless they’re statutorily or constitutionally protected) is also advancing.

HB 1655 by Rep. Todd Hunter, R-Corpus Christi, addresses a 2015 court decision which extended a common-law right of privacy to dates of birth of all Texans. 

Journalists and many types of businesses use DOBs to differentiate between two individuals with the same or similar names. 

Hunter’s HB 1655 has been approved the House State Affairs Committee and is awaiting a House floor calendar date.

The bill’s Senate companion, SB 1318 by Sen. Nathan Johnson, D-Dallas, had its committee hearing on Tuesday and was left pending.

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

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