Fate of key transparency bills is uncertain

By Donnis Baggett

 AUSTIN -- There’s no question that Americans -- particularly Texans -- are increasingly suspicious of government. Trust in government is at a dangerously low level.
That’s why virtually every candidate who runs for the Texas Legislature loudly proclaims that he or she is all for transparency and accountability. 
Unfortunately, campaign season is a distant memory at this point in Texas’ legislative session. Lawmakers have spent four full months in the company of lobbyists who are paid nicely to convince them that the interests of their clients are threatened by transparency.
Today, with only a month remaining, a Legislature that began as a tabernacle-sized choir singing the chorus of transparency has dwindled to a small combo that could rehearse in a two-car garage. 
With time running out and important pro-transparency bills hanging in the balance, it’s time for those who sang in the choir during campaign season to remember the music.
Six transparency bills must pass to restore Texas to what it once was -- a state with some of the strongest transparency laws in the nation. 
For that to happen, citizens must tell their legislators they expect them to come down on the side of the folks who voted them into office.
By asking where they stand and then watching how they vote on these bills, you can judge for yourself whether your lawmakers are walking the walk on transparency. Then you can hold them accountable at the primary ballot box next spring.
The first three bills are extremely important. Last year the speaker’s office urged transparency advocates, governmental groups and other stakeholders to hammer out transparency measures they could unite behind. 
The groups met for 11 months, and these three bills were among the measures they all agreed to support:
-HB 2670 by Rep. Todd Hunter, R-Corpus Christi, would close a loophole that enables officials who use their private electronic devices for public business to hide records that should be public. 
That’s illegal, but because of the loophole, the law goes largely unenforced. The bill puts teeth in the law by establishing a process for the attorney general to use against scofflaws.
-HB 2710 by Hunter would restore access to dates of birth in governmental records. A 3rd Court of Appeals ruling made much of that information off limits. Without dates of birth, it can be impossible to determine which John Smith is which. As implementation of this ruling spreads to other regions, it hamstrings members of the public seeking detailed child-support information, sex offender lists, even political candidate applications. It also hinders the work of mortgage companies, background check companies, data firms such as LexisNexis, and the media. Without this information, stories such as the abuses at the Texas Youth Commission would never come to light. Without date-of-birth information, businesses, citizens and the media would have no way of correctly identifying people with common names who have conviction records and the like.
-HB 3848 by Hunter includes provisions of the previous two bills, and also would require a governmental entity to notify a citizen who requested information if there’s nothing available. If the governmental entity has the information but believes it’s not required to release it, the entity would have to explain why. Currently, the entity can choose to simply say nothing, and the citizen is left to assume that his request was placed in File 13, fostering even more distrust in government.
Bills that are agreed upon by major stakeholder groups normally sail through their committee hearing. But these three important bills met stiff opposition at a hearing in the House Government Transparency and Operation Committee, and now their fate is uncertain.
Here are three other bills that need to pass to restore Texas’ standing as an open-government leader:
-SB 407 by Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, and its companion, HB 792 by Rep. Giovanni Capriglione, R-Southlake, aim to repair the damage done by a 2015 Texas Supreme Court ruling. 
The court ruled that businesses and governmental entities can withhold information about their contracts with each other by claiming the information might put them at a competitive disadvantage in the future. Using this easy cover, city officials in McAllen sealed information on the amount they paid singer Enrique Iglesias to sing in the city’s holiday parade.  And the city of Denton sealed contract details on the largest capital project in the city’s history — a quarter-billion-dollar municipal power plant being built with taxpayers’ money. There are hundreds of other examples, and the list is growing daily. SB 407 has already passed the Senate. Like the previous bills, it is pending in the House Government Transparency and Operation Committee.
-SB 408 by Watson and its companion, HB 793 by Capriglione, aim to undo another bad 2015 Texas Supreme Court ruling. Ignoring decades of precedent, the high court ruled that a non-profit organization paid by the City of Houston to perform economic development work was not subject to the public information act.  The result: taxpayers have no way to know how that money was spent. 
The Houston situation isn’t unique. Many economic development groups receive the lion’s share of their funding from governmental entities, and often the same elected officials who allocated the money to them serve on the groups’ boards. SB 408 passed the conservative Texas Senate overwhelmingly, despite strong opposition from business interests. It too is pending in the House Government Transparency and Operation Committee.
HB 3581 by Capriglione would give a citizen who requests governmental information the ability to get the information in the format in which it’s filed. (Some entities produce a PDF file even when a requestor asks for an existing spreadsheet, making the information harder for the requestor to analyze.) 
The bill would make available much-needed details on how the data is organized, the computer program that was used and the heading of each column of information in a document. (Yes, some entities actually respond to a request by providing charts with no column headings, leaving the requestor to guess what the numbers mean.) The bill is also pending in — you guessed it — the House Government Transparency and Operation Committee. Like the other bills, it needs to be voted out of committee and get a House vote immediately.
A democracy without transparency is not a government run for the people. It is run on the backs of the people. Only the people themselves can put an end to that.
Please tell your legislator what you think. You’ll find contact information for legislators and legislative committees at www.legis.state.tx.us. And don’t wait until election season to call. Do it now.
Donnis Baggett is executive vice president of the Texas Press Association. He lobbies for open records, open meetings and public notices by government. His email address is dbaggett@texaspress.com


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