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TAB Priority Newsroom Legislation Advancing

With fewer than seven full weeks left in the 87th Texas Legislature, TAB’s package of newsroom legislative priorities is advancing with four measures already heard by Senate or House committees. 

Just in case House bills get hung up by rapidly approaching bill deadlines, Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, has SB 923 parked in the Senate Business and Commerce Committee, a “catch-all” Open Government omnibus bill.

It could be used to revive bill efforts if moved from the Senate to the House later in the session.

Several of TAB’s priority House bills are slated for a Wednesday hearing in the House State Affairs Committee.

Searchable / Sortable Records
HB 1810 by Rep. Giovanni Capriglione, R-Southlake

This bill requires electronic public information be produced in a searchable and sortable format (such as an Excel spreadsheet) if that information is maintained in that manner. 

It is meant to prevent data from being released in useless formats, such providing a .pdf of a spreadsheet.

It also clarifies that data dictionaries and record layouts that define data fields are public information subject to disclosure. 

This allows requestors to make sense of the data they request from government entities.

TPIA Required Response
HB 3015 by Rep. Ana Hernandez, D-Houston

Government agencies by law must provide public records to requestors promptly and without delay. 

Agencies have up to 10 business days to fulfill the request or seek an Attorney General ruling to withhold records.

There is currently no practical way to penalize agencies that do not respond to records requests in a timely manner, or, at all. 

HB 3015 requires public officials to notify requestors if there are no records responsive to a specific request, or if a previous Attorney General ruling allows withholding of the information.

Date of Birth (DOB) Verification
HB 3535 by Rep. Todd Hunter, R-Corpus Christi

Birth dates provide verification for news reporting when there is a common name, but a 2015 appeals court ruling has created confusion on the availability of birthdates in various public records.

More than 10,000 Attorney General rulings have since been issued allowing redaction of birthdates in various public records.

TAB and others have sought to correct this problem in two previous legislative sessions. 

Already Heard by Committee

Two of TAB’s measures were heard in a lengthy House State Affairs Committee session last week and were left pending.

WOAI-TV San Antonio investigative reporter Jaie Avila provided testimony on both bills detailing Open Records issues the station has encountered during the pandemic.

Barring any serious setbacks behind the scenes, both bills could be up for a committee vote this week.

“Skeleton Crews” / Remote Work
HB 1416 by Rep. Giovanni Capriglione, R-Southlake

This bill clearly defines what constitutes a “business day” to prevent the abuse of the “skeleton crew”

loophole in the tolling of 10 business days in which governmental bodies must respond to Texas Public

Information Act (TPIA) requests.

Catastrophe Notice
HB 3627 by Rep. Chris Paddie, R-Marshall

In the past, catastrophes, natural disasters, and other similar emergencies rendered it difficult or impossible for impacted governmental bodies to timely respond to Texas Public Information Act requests—either due to emergency work related to the catastrophe or, in some cases, because government offices were shut down by flooding or other damage.

Senate Bill 494, passed in 2019, codified what had been a long-standing informal practice of allowing governmental entities, on rare occasions, to temporarily suspend responding to open records requests.

Governments can now file “catastrophe notices” with the Texas Attorney General’s Office notifying the AG that they will embark on a seven-day suspension period for responding to TPIA requests.

When necessary, a seven-day extension of the initial suspension notice can be filed, for a total of 14 days of suspension per notice.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the catastrophe notice provision of the TPIA was rarely used, but since March 2020, dozens of governmental offices have filed catastrophe notices, and in some cases, multiple extensions.

This bill 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 TPIA requests. 

The bill further 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.

Out of Committee and Advancing

Two bills have been heard and approved by their originating committee and one of them has already moved from one chamber to the other.

Nursing Homes / Infectious Disease Outbreaks
SB 930 by Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo

In its original form, SB 930 required state health authorities to provide information on the facilities involved and the number of cases involving an infectious disease outbreak at a nursing home or assisted living center.

While in the Senate Health and Human Services Committee, the bill had language from SB 882 by committee Chairman Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, added.

Kolkhorst’s measure requires local health authorities to provide the same information.

SB 930 was approved 31-0 by the Texas Senate and is awaiting action by the House Health and Human Services Committee.

The committee has already heard the companion bill to Kolkhorst’s measure, HB 3306 by Rep. Mayes Middleton, R-Wallisville, which should pave the way for SB 930 to advance, likely before the end of the month.

KXAN-TV Austin investigative journalist Avery Travis provided testimony on the station’s efforts to keep its viewers informed on Central Texas area COVID-19 nursing home outbreaks when that information was not being provided by local or state health authorities. 

Remote Meetings / Public Participation
HB 2683 by Rep. Terry Canales, D-Edinburg

Canales’ bill would provide guarantees of public participation and attendance when open meetings shift to the remote, electronic environment, as they have in good number during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

While Texas Open Meetings Act (TOMA) provisions continue to apply, some public officials are confused about how to ensure public access and participation.

For instance, those who want to make a public comment should not be required to attend in person if the rest of the meeting is virtual. 

Accommodations should also be made for call-in attendees who do not have adequate internet coverage.

HB 2683 brings the Texas Open Meetings Act fully into 2021 by creating safeguards for the public when meetings go remote.

The bill was approved by the House State Affairs Committee and is awaiting a House floor date.

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

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