We Texans are fortunate when it comes to access to government information.
Correction. We were fortunate.
For more than 40 years, Texas’ open records law was one of the nation’s strongest. The Texas Public Information Act, originating during a time of scandal in the early 1970s, presumes all government records are available to citizens, unless there’s a specific exception preventing release of the document.
But our modern era of openness shifted dramatically with two state Supreme Court decisions in 2015 known as the Boeing ruling and the Greater Houston Partnership ruling. Both put many government financial records off limits to citizens.
If the damage isn’t repaired in this legislative session, Texas will be way back in the pack compared with other states’ transparency laws. Details on the spending of many millions of dollars in taxpayer money will be secret.
Sadly, the message to citizens will be: “Don’t bother asking. It’s none of your business.”
As we embark on Sunshine Week, March 12-18, let’s commit to maintaining Texas’ national standing as a leading right-to-know state. The free flow of accurate information has always been important. It’s especially so in this time of misinformation and fake news.
The so-called Boeing ruling allows all sorts of contracts the government holds with private businesses to be sealed from public view. The government or the private entity simply must claim a record’s release would lead to a competitive disadvantage - not a decisive disadvantage, buy any disadvantage.
Do you want to see your school district’s bus or food service contracts so that you know whether your taxpayer money is being well spent? Good luck. Already, some of those basic documents have been ruled unobtainable. The same has happened to requestors seeking taxi and ride-sharing company filings with the government. Small business owners who want to view the winning contracts awarded by a local community college also have been thwarted.
In one of the most unbelievable examples, the city of McAllen refused to reveal how much taxpayer money it paid entertainer Enrique Iglesias to perform in a city holiday festival. The Attorney General’s Office, citing the Boeing court ruling, agreed to the withholding. The state office has made hundreds of similar closed records decisions because of the Boeing case.
The Greater Houston Partnership decision prevents the public from viewing the financial books of non-profits that are supported by taxpayer money and act in a government agency fashion. Often, economic development activities are farmed out to these types of non-profits, as they were to GHP. To prevent corruption and hold these agencies accountable, public oversight of how they spend money is necessary through the Texas Public Information Act.
Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, and Rep. Giovanni Capriglione, R-Southlake, are working together on the bipartisan issue of protecting the public’s right to know and each have filed bills to reconstruct what the Texas Supreme Court dismantled.
Senate Bill 407 and House Bill 792 address the Boeing decision, while Senate Bill 408 and House Bill 793 address the Greater Houston Partnership ruling.
The Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas and other open government advocates are pressing for additional transparency measures in the Legislature. One attempts to improve access to public records stored in private email accounts and on private electronic devices. Another seeks to resume access to dates of birth in certain public records, including crime documents and election filings, which fosters accuracy and informs the public. House Bill 2670 and House Bill 2710, respectively, address these two big issues. Rep. Todd Hunter, R-Corpus Christi, authored the bills.
Meanwhile, open government supporters are working to block bills that hinder citizen access to government information. Many secrecy bills are filed every legislative session.
The clock is ticking on the time we have to preserve openness in Texas. The current Legislature meets until May 29. We should all urge state lawmakers to let the sunshine in as they do the people’s work.
Kelley Shannon is executive director of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, a non-profit promoting open government laws and the First Amendment rights of free speech and press.