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TAB Push to Lift Veil on Secrecy in Public Contracting Gains Ground

- Stations encouraged to submit reporting on concerns

TAB’s joint effort with other Open Government advocates to educate policymakers and voters about the need to reform the Texas Public Information Act is gaining ground as various statewide business and public policy advocacy groups join the Texas Sunshine Coalition. The first major policy forum was held in late March after a key House committee hearing, another is slated for mid-May in Corpus Christi, and newsrooms across the state are sharing their examples of problems they’ve encountered with the current state of the law.

In 2015, the Texas Supreme Court issued rulings in two separate cases that upended the public’s longstanding access to contracts between government entities and private companies. Such access is widely understood to ensure that taxpayers know how their tax dollars are being spent, that government programs outsourced to private companies are efficiently and cost-effectively conducted, and that taxpayers can hold their elected officials accountable for spending of tax dollars.

One ruling allows contractors to shield their contracts with government entities if they think release of the final contract will put them at a competitive disadvantage. Under the ruling, government agencies are required to alert contractors to a request for copies of their final contracts which allows contractors to assert a proprietary information claim to block release. More than 2,000 requests for copies of final government contracts have been rejected under this ruling since it was issued, and that number grows daily.

Another ruling allows economic development groups partially funded with tax dollars to keep secret how they spend those tax dollars. The effort by the City of Austin and other Central Texas communities to recruit Amazon’s HQ2 project is just one example of how taxpayers are left completely in the dark about what they could be forced to pay the online tech and sales giant if they land the project.

Other loopholes in the Texas Public Information Act also need to be closed, such as ensuring a mechanism to provide access to government information stored on officials’ personal communications devices; ensuring public access to date of birth records to foster accuracy in news reports, business transactions and criminal justice; and ensuring the families of suspects killed while in police custody have access to all information, including videos, related to a suspect’s death.

The latter issue is the topic of KXAN-TV Austin’s DENIED, a multi-installment investigative reporting series on cases in which the only suspect in a police encounter dies while in custody. Under the TPIA, law enforcement may withhold information on cases that are not closed or that did not result in a prosecution. If law enforcement declares that a case in which the only suspect died in their custody is not yet closed, they can avoid releasing video and other information that sheds light on how the suspect died.

An example of the importance of ensuring taxpayers know how their tax dollars are spent is found in KXAS-TV Dallas-Fort Worth’s year-long Big Buses, Bigger Problems investigative series into reckless spending and inside dealing by Dallas County Schools. This reporting earned the station a Peabody Award last month and led Dallas County voters to shut down the agency last November.

Newsrooms are encouraged to submit to TAB examples of their investigative reporting on public spending, as well as reporting on flaws in the TPIA and violations of the law for inclusion in the Texas Sunshine Coalition website or tweets to @TXSunshine19. Story links should be sent to TAB’s Michael Schneider.

Coalition Expands After 2017 Effort Fails
Last year a package of legislation addressing these and other much needed reforms to the Texas Public Information Act was passed not once, but twice by the transparency-minded Texas Senate. Conversely, leaders in the Texas House killed the effort both times, once by legislative delay and again by using a parliamentary ploy on a House bill amended by the Senate.

Since then, the original legislative sponsors – GOP Reps. Todd Hunter of Corpus Christi and Giovanni Capriglione of Southlake and Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin – have doubled down on their efforts and the coalition of groups advocating for the changes has expanded beyond TAB, the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas and the Texas Press Association.

New coalition partners run the partisan gamut:

  • Texas Public Policy Foundation
  • Center for Public Policy Priorities
  • TURF-Texans Uniting for Reform & Freedom
  • Public Citizen
  • TEXAS Action
  • ACLU Texas
  • League of Women Voters

FOIFT Board member Laura Prather of the Haynes Boone law firm is serving as lead counsel for the effort.

Questions? Contact TAB’s Oscar Rodriguez or call (512) 322-9944.

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