Open Government Summary, May 27, 2019  (86th Legislative Session Wrap-Up)

This session’s Bi-partisan legislation will obligate governments to reveal the core elements of their contracts with private companies, including final dollar amount, key contract provisions, and line-item pricing. Information about public contracts with nonprofits that are performing government work, such as economic development agencies, will also be more readily available.

 

 Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, and Rep. Giovanni Capriglione, R-Southlake, worked with the League of Women Voters through  the Sunshine Coalition and Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas to pass Senate Bill 943, contracting transparency legislation that strengthens the Texas Public Information Act.  In 2015, two Texas Supreme Court rulings had blocked public access to how taxpayer money is spent.

 

Watson and Capriglione also joined to pass Senate Bill 944, which allows better access to public records in a government official’s private cell phone or email account. These records are already public by law, but SB 944 closes a “custodian loophole” and makes them easier to obtain.

 

One open government bill that fell short of passage was House Bill 1655, restoring access to dates of birth in public records. It passed the House but got blocked in the full Senate in the session’s final days, even though it had passed the Senate in 2017. Access to dates of birth ensures accurate criminal background checks for employers and employees; assists in lending and other financial transactions; helps journalists in accurate criminal justice reporting; allows voters to vet political candidates; and gives genealogists the tools to track ancestry.

 

Open government -  (April 19,  2019)

Transparency and open government, among the pillars which assure that democracy works, are hot topics this session.  Advocates in all sectors are unabashedly complaining that the once-robust Texas Public Information Act is hemorrhaging, and the League of Women Voters in Texas stands firmly with them.

Over the past several years, public entities across the state have been consistently—and even routinely—slowing down if not actually blocking the public’s access to government records and contracts.  Two focused and strong-willed legislators, Sen. Kirk Watson (D-Austin) and Rep. Giovani Capriglione (R-Keller), are pushing hard with great success to date to restore the Act’s strength.  The Senate has passed SB 943, and its companion bill has moved out of the House State Affairs Committee expected to be debated on the House floor soon.

Why is this legislation needed?  This multi-pronged initiative seeks to dial back the secrecy that was encouraged by a 2015 Texas Supreme Court decision.   In the case brought by aerospace giant Boeing Co., justices widened an exception in open records law for certain information that is gathered at different levels of government contracting with businesses. As of January, the Attorney General’s Office, which adjudicates disputes over which records ought to be made public, has cited the Boeing ruling more than 2,600 times in open government decisions, thus preventing information from being disclosed to the public.

Yet another ruling has made it difficult to obtain records from economic development corporations that are technically in the private sector but receive substantial taxpayer funding.  Taxpayers have the right to know how their dollars are being spent by any and all Texas government agencies.

Another bill by Sen. Watson (SB 1318), which clarifies when dates of birth should be made public, has had no opposition voiced in the Senate. Its companion bill is now out of committee.  Businesses, journalists, and regular citizens use dates of birth for many purposes.  Birthdates help to verify identity in the context of credit checks, providing loans, news reporting, etc.  For example, when someone is arrested or convicted of a crime has a common name, such as John Smith or Jose Garcia, the person can be identified with a date of birth, allowing the public to more accurately know the suspect’s identity.  In news reporting on government employees holding sensitive positions (such as school bus drivers) who may have been convicted of sex offenses or other crimes, dates of birth clarify identity and facilitate accurate reporting.

Additionally, the public has a basic right to know the birthdates of candidates for elected office.  Birthdates tell the public whether the candidate is old enough to hold office and can help citizens evaluate the candidate.

Unfortunately, in dire contrast to what is discussed above, the House Judiciary & Civil Jurisprudence Committee has voted unanimously to move proposed legislation by Rep. Jeff Leach, (R-Allen), to discussion before the full House soon, despite opposition from groups such as the League and Sunshine Coalition.  In most cases, the Anti-SLAPP law is a tool for regular Texans facing a David-and-Goliath court battle they cannot afford and do not deserve.  HB 2730, and its companion SB 2162, would remove protections for people who get sued for defamation, for employers who try to protect their employees, for Texans who get sued by out-of-state corporations, and for consumers who write online reviews but have unknowingly signed non-disparagement agreements while clicking through the website.  The law could actually prevent average citizens from getting a lawyer to defend them because of certain language.

This session the League of Women Voters of Texas is closely aligned with the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas and the growing statewide Sunshine Coalition. The Foundation seeks to inform all about their rights and responsibilities as participants in our democracy, with the clear objective to protect and preserve the state’s open meetings and open records laws.  The Sunshine Coalition is working with state and local lawmakers, executives and other key policymakers to enact new provisions that strengthen Texas’ Sunshine Laws, improve public oversight and rebuild trust in government operations and decisions. Both are nonprofit organizations.

April 14, 2017

The Texas Senate has approved on a 28-2 vote Sen. Kirk Watson’s (D-Austin) bill that aims to restore the strength of the state’s freedom of information law by closing loopholes that have been closing off government contracting records to the public. In parallel, Rep. Giovani Capriglione’s (R-Keller) companion bill was approved by the House State Affairs Committee. Court rulings have been adverse to the state’s Public Information Act.  For example, in one decision, the court granted private companies who contract with governmental entities enormous latitude to claim that documents should be kept secret, such as the contract amount and how much public money was involved.  Another ruling has made it difficult to obtain records from economic development corporations that are technically in the private sector but receive substantial taxpayer funding.

In less than a positive development,  the House Judiciary & Civil Jurisprudence Committee has voted unanimously to move proposed legislation by Rep. Jeff Leach, R-Allen, to discussion before the full House soon.  See the report below dated March 17 for more information about the risks that free speech protection could be gutted during this session.

March 17, 2019

Texas Rep. Jeff Leach, R-Allen, Chair of House Judiciary & Civil Jurisprudence Committee, is listening closely to his stakeholders working group that is addressing how the proposed changes to HB 2730  would severely dismantle the free speech protections now in place in Texas.  In addition to the League, pushing hard to block any gutting of the Texas Citizens Participation Act are the Sunshine Coalition, Free Speech Coalition,  and the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas.   While Chairman Leach indicates a desire to preserve the integrity of the law, opposition appears strong.  

In most cases, the Anti-SLAPP law is a tool for regular Texans facing a David-and-Goliath court battle they cannot afford and do not deserve.  HB 2730, and its companion SB 2162, would remove protections for people who get sued for defamation, for employers who try to protect their employees, for Texans who get sued by out-of-state corporations, and for consumers who write online reviews but have unknowingly signed non-disparagement agreements while clicking through the website.  The law could actually prevent average citizens from getting a lawyer to defend them because of certain language.

Additionally, in regards to bills that would open up information about government contracts with private companies,  the League has sent personalized letters to members of the House State Affairs Committee and Senate Business and Commerce Committee, in addition to the House Calendar Committee, asking them to be aware of cases in their own districts in which the Attorney General’s office has blocked the public from knowing the details of how their tax dollars are being spent with private companies and nonprofit organizations in large contracts with governmental entities.    See below.

 

Feb. 22, 2019

 

Pro-transparency legislators are in full action, filing legislation that open government advocates are supporting.  For example,  cited below is the 2015 Supreme Court decision involving Boeing Co. that allowed the aerospace giant to fit into loopholes and not make public certain contract information.  As of January, the attorney general’s office, which adjudicates disputes over which records ought to be made public, has cited the Boeing ruling more than 2,600  times in open government decisions, which doing so prevented information from being disclosed to the public.  Austin in 2017 cited the Boeing ruling, albeit its effort was unsuccessful, to withhold from the media the names of persons who had applied for the city manager post.

 

Texas Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin,  and Texas Rep. Giovanni Capriglione, R-Keller,  have not been deterred by the 2017 fights and have both filed bills to restore transparency to state and local government contracting.   Requirements and exceptions are spelled out clearly.  (For more details see SB 943 and HB 2189.)

 

Other major bills on the League’s advocacy agenda have been filed by Rep. Todd Hunter, R-Corpus Christi.

January  14, 2019

Open government advocates in all sectors are unabashedly saying the once-robust Texas Public Information Act is hemorrhaging. This session the League of Women Voters of Texas is closely aligned with the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas and the growing statewide Sunshine Coalition. The Foundation seeks to inform all about their rights and responsibilities as participants in our democracy, with the clear objective to protect and preserve the state’s open meetings and open records laws.  The Sunshine Coalition is working with state and local lawmakers, executives and other key policymakers to enact new provisions that strengthen Texas’ Sunshine Laws, improve public oversight and rebuild trust in government operations and decisions. Both are nonprofit organizations.

Knowing the “business” side of government contracting.

Front and center in the open government “debate” is the multi-pronged initiative that seeks to dial back secrecy that a 2015 Texas Supreme Court decision encouraged.   In the case brought by aerospace giant Boeing Co., justices widened an exception in open records law for certain information that is gathered at different levels of government contracting with businesses.  Taxpayers have a right to know how their dollars are being spent by any and all Texas government agencies, according to a widely-circulated news article.  See  https://www.dallasnews.com/news/texas-politics/2018/12/27/taxpayers-need-know-money-spent-say-advocates-closing-hole-texas-open-records-law.

 

Leading the effort is Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, and Rep. Giovanni Capriglione, R-Southlake.  They have long stood with the League and other advocates.  Last session’s battle ended abruptly through the actions of then House Speaker Joe Strauss and lack of action by Gov. Greg Abbott.

 

Proposed tax record limitations

SB 73, Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, would omit certain information from deed and appraisal records;  including a mineral lease, mechanic’s lease and release of a mechanic’s lien.