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Texas House Panel Exploring Impact of State Court Rulings on Open Government

- Hearing slated for March 27, OG primer on March 29

A panel of Texas lawmakers tasked with considering legislation involving government transparency will take up next week an interim charge to explore whether Texas Supreme Court rulings over the past few years have weakened the Texas Public Information Act. This is the same committee that refused to advance legislation in 2017 that would ensure taxpayers could see final government contracts as they could before the rulings in question were issued. In a stark contrast, the Texas Senate passed the measures twice.

The issue is one of six scheduled to be addressed by the Texas House Committee on Government Transparency and Operations (GTO) on Tuesday, March 27, at 10 a.m. in Room E2.010 of the State Capitol. The specific charge is to “evaluate whether, in light of recent Texas Supreme Court rulings, the provisions of the Public Information Act are adequate to support transparency and accountability in government, particularly as it relates to government contracting and procurement.”

A coalition of Open Government advocates including TAB, the Freedom of Information Foundation and the Texas Press Association worked with Committee Vice Chairman Rep. Giovanni Capriglione, R-Southlake, in the 2017 session to address the concern in two separate bills. Chairman Gary Elkins, R-Houston, delayed consideration of the measures until it was too late to pass them, saying at one point in the process that “a lot of people” thought the court’s rulings were well-founded.

The rulings in question involve two politically powerful entities that lobbied against them extensively in the House, dominated by so-called “mainstream” Republicans, after being shut out by the transparency-minded Senate.

2017 Legislation
The following legislation garnered 30 of 31 votes in the Texas Senate twice in the 2017 session, first on their own and then again as amendments to a germane House bill late in the session.

SB 407/HB 792 by Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin; and Rep. Giovanni Capriglione, R-Southlake
Addressed Boeing Aviation court ruling that allows government entities to keep secret their contracts with private entities based on a proprietary information claim asserted by the private entity. Previously, bids and proposals were secret, but the final contracts were public.

SB 408/HB 793 by Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin; and Rep. Giovanni Capriglione, R-Southlake
Addressed Greater Houston Partnership court ruling that allows private non-profit groups such as economic development corporations to keep secret how they spend tax dollars contributed by government entities unless those funds “sustain” the EDC. Previously, most if not all such expenditures were required to be released to the public.

Under the Boeing ruling alone, more than 2,000 requests for information that used to be considered public have been denied since it was issued in 2015. TAB is collecting examples of investigative reporting that has been stymied because of both rulings as the coalition expands efforts to finally pass legislation in the 2019 session.

March 27 GTO Hearing, March 29 OG Primer Details
Invited testimony at the GTO hearing will be taken first, followed by public testimony. Members of the committee are listed below.

Chairman:  Gary Elkins, R-Houston (HD 135)
Vice Chairman:  Giovanni Capriglione, R-Southlake (HD 98)
Larry Gonzales, R-Round Rock (HD 52) – Retiring
Eddie Lucio, III, D-Brownsville (HD 38)
Matt Shaheen, R-Plano (HD 66)
Tony Tinderholt, R-Arlington (HD 94)
Tomas Uresti, D-San Antonio (HD 118) – Lost Primary Re-election

In addition, an Open Government policy discussion moderated by The Texas Tribune’s Ross Ramsey is slated for March 29 at the Texas Public Policy Foundation’s auditorium. Registration is free, open to the public, and includes a complimentary lunch.

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

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