By KELLEY SHANNON
Texas Freedom of Information Foundation
To witness bipartisanship at the Texas Capitol, look to the lawmakers who are working to improve open government laws.
Lawmakers from both political parties are sparking interest in transparency and creating an opportunity for all lawmakers to protect people’s right to know. They are carrying on our state’s legacy of openness.
When the 1973 reform legislature enacted the Texas Public Information Act, then known as the Open Records Act, it established one of the toughest disclosure laws in the nation. This year marks its 50th anniversary. Court rulings and other actions have weakened the law since it passed, but as we celebrate open government during Sunshine Month throughout March, let’s rally around the bills Texas lawmakers introduced this session to strengthen the historical act:
Transparency of contracts: Access to government contracts allows taxpayers to see how their money is being spent. A bipartisan proposal would strengthen a law passed in 2019 guaranteeing the release of “super public” information, including the overall contract price and description of items and services. Senate Bill 680 by Sen. Nathan Johnson, D-Dallas, and House Bill 2492 by Rep. Giovanni Capriglione, R-Southlake, are the bills that address contractual transparency.
Public Records Business Days: A definition of “business day” in the Public Information Act is needed to provide consistency for all who seek public records. Currently, governments self-state which days they are open or closed for handling TPIA requests. Sometimes they don’t respond to requests. Proposals to correct this problem are contained in Johnson’s Senate Bill 618; House Bill 2135 by Representative Terry Canales, D-Edinburgh; and Senate Bills 43 and 44 by Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo
Dates of Birth: Dates of birth in criminal justice records, such as police reports and incarceration records, and in applications from candidates for public office allow the public to accurately identify an individual. Correctly identifying someone accused of a crime protects the reputations of those who have the same name but aren’t accused. A date of birth also helps with thorough scrutiny of political candidates. Zaffirini’s Senate Bill 46 and Rep. Todd Hunter’s House Bill 2309, R-Corpus Christi, allow access to birth dates in these records.
Public Records and Attorney Fees: If an applicant for documents faces hurdles and must sue to obtain public records, the ability to recover attorney fees levels the playing field between that individual and the government, especially if a government turns over the documents to the last minute after months of costly litigation. This legislation is House Bill 2874 by Rep. John Smithee, R-Amarillo.
Searchable Documents: While some governments provide data in the form of searchable spreadsheets, often facilitating analysis, others do not. Johnson’s Senate Bill 965, Zaffirini’s Senate Bill 45, and Capriglione’s House Bill 2493 would codify the ability to obtain searchable-sortable documents if such a format is available.
These measures are supported by the Texas Sunshine Coalition, made up of more than 15 different organizations united around the principle that access to information is essential to defend public order and participate in our democracy.
Additional proposed transparency measures cover public gatherings, police accountability, and other timely topics.
For example, when someone dies in police custody, the public needs to know what happened. Some law enforcement agencies use a loophole in the Public Information Act to withhold records. Rep. Joe Moody, D-El Paso introduced House Bill 30 to remedy the problem.
Addressing public notices, Senator Lois Kolkhorst’s Senate Bill 943, R-Brenham and Hunter’s House Bill 2178 would require government notices that are required by law to be published in a newspaper to be posted at no additional cost on the newspaper’s website and on a statewide public notice website of the Texas Press Association. This publication through a neutral third party provides an easy and reliable source to view public notices.
Transparency advocates will speak until the end of the legislative session on May 29 to push for passage of these proposals that shed light on government, allowing us to hold it accountable.
Simply put, open government is good governance.
Kelley Shannon is executive director of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, an Austin-based nonprofit organization. For more information, visit https://www.foift.org.