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Watson, Capriglione file TAB-advocated Open Government reform measures

Texas state Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, and state Rep. Giovani Capriglione, R-Keller, this week filed  companion bills meant to right two egregious 2015 Texas State Supreme Ct. decisions involving the Texas Public Information Act which have damaged the public’s access to records related to governmental expenditures to private and non-profit entities.

The companion bills, SB 407/HB 792 and SB 408/HB 793, are a large part of TAB’s ambitious newsroom-related agenda in the 2017 Legislature.

"Unfortunately, these recent decisions from the Texas Supreme Court weakened the law by allowing governmental bodies and private entities that receive public funds to more easily conceal their dealings," Watson said.

"I believe it is our duty as the Legislature to ensure the people of Texas can track how government spends public money."

Capriglione agreed.

“Taxpayers have a right to know how their money is being spent,” Capriglione said.

“The original intent of the Public Information Act was to be as permissive as possible in favor of the citizens of Texas.”

In addition to TAB, the pair said the measures have support from a broad coalition of groups and individuals including Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, the Texas Press Association, the Texas Municipal League, the Texas Association of Counties, and the Texas Association of Urban Counties.

In Boeing v. Paxton, the court’s 7-1 ruling was a two-fold disaster for open government as it made it easier for government and business to keep contracts involving public funds secret. 

The decision broadened an existing AG ruling protecting governmental competitive interests such as economic development efforts. 

It also lowered the standard by which a company can block the release of information in a government contract if the company asserts it would face competitive harm if the information is made public.   Government contracts have long been held to be public, but bids and proposals were protected by an existing exception protecting trade secrets and proprietary information.

The decision has been used in all manner of instances including the City of McAllen shielding its contract for an hour long holiday concert featuring Enrique Iglesias. 

The City successfully argued that it had “specific marketplace interests” mentioned in the contract and that its release would “place the city at a competitive disadvantage” when negotiating future contracts with entertainers.

In Greater Houston Partnership v. Paxton, the court’s 6-3 ruling said the non-profit Greater Houston Partnership, an economic development entity, is not subject to the Texas Public Information Act because it did not rely exclusively or heavily on government funding to exist.  

The ruling allows third-party groups to conduct business on behalf of government, using public money, without being required to divulge the expenditures of that money.  

There are several economic development groups like GHP across the state and the Texas Attorney General’s office ruled in favor of one of them a month after the court’s decision and cited the GHP case.

In fact, since the court’s two rulings were handed down, more than 300 requests have been made by governmental bodies to prevent release of the information through AG rulings citing either the Boeing or GHP rulings.

TAB hopes to build on its successful record of passing legislation benefiting Texas newsrooms, including passage of the 1993 state interlocutory appeal provision, the 2009 Free Flow of Information Act (reporter shield law), the 2011 Citizen Participation Act (anti-SLAPP litigation law), 2013 Defamation Mitigation Act (uniform corrections/retractions measure) and a 2015 clarification to the law concerning reporting third party allegations.

In each instance, TAB has been assisted by Texas broadcast journalists who provided background information and testified before lawmakers in hearings on these important pieces of legislation.

There are two ways newsrooms can continue to help TAB advance a newsroom legislative agenda.

News Directors and other newsroom staff can get a deep-dive into the legislative issues affecting Texas newsrooms by attending TAB’s biennial Legislative Day Conference in Austin on Jan. 24.

See event details and register here.  

The event highlight is the Lawmaker/Broadcaster Luncheon at which lawmakers are seated with their local broadcasters so they can discuss issues important to their communities and briefly review TAB’s policy interests.

Broadcaster participation in this event is imperative to TAB’s success in the legislative session, whether advancing bills such as the two filed this week to strengthen the Texas Public Information Act, or fending off attacks on it.

News directors and newsroom staff can keep up with these measures by reading TAB’s weekly newsroom legislative Billwatch emails.

These Friday dispatches will begin Jan 13 and will detail legislation filed by lawmakers which could impact newsgathering in Texas.

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

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