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Interim committee gives Legislature a new chance to improve Open Government laws

by | Jun 14, 2017 | Opinion

By Sen. Kirk Watson and Rep. Todd Hunter

 

Five of the most frightening words to hear from elected officials from all levels of government are these:  “I’m all for transparency, but….”

The phrase following the “but” is usually an excuse to weaken government transparency, not protect it.

Our open government laws were once considered the nation’s best, but in recent years they’ve been eroded by court rulings and loopholes that weakened Texans’ right to know what their state and local governments are up to. Information that was routinely available for decades is now off limits — particularly information about dealings between government and business interests. This has led to a dangerous erosion of accountability.

We worked with a bipartisan group of lawmakers from both chambers to reverse that trend in the 2017 session. Even though our proposals didn’t pass the full legislature, we’re already working to get them passed in the 2019 session.

Here’s a sampling of the bills we hope to revive:

SB 407 and its companion, HB 792, would have repaired the loophole created by a 2015 Texas Supreme Court ruling called Boeing. In that case, the court ruled that businesses and governmental entities may withhold information about their contracts with each other by claiming the information might put them at even a slight competitive disadvantage. In an era of public-private partnerships, this makes it impossible to know how the public is faring in countless arrangements.

SB 408 and its companion, HB 793, would have addressed a Texas Supreme Court ruling that redefined when private entities supported by public funds have to comply with transparency laws. Because of that ruling, citizens now have no way to know how the hard-earned money they paid in taxes is spent once it’s channeled through a private entity like a chamber of commerce, a local non-profit, or even a for-profit business.

HB 2710 would have restored citizens’ access to dates of birth in governmental records after a 3rd Court of Appeals ruling put much of that information off limits. Businesses, journalists and even private citizens need access to dates of birth in otherwise public documents to ensure individuals with common names are not confused with each other.

HB 2670 would have closed a loophole used by some officials to hide public documents on their private electronic devices. The bill would have established a process to compel every official to follow the law.

These were not pie-in-the-sky measures that would endanger public-private partnerships or facilitate identity theft. Quite the contrary. They were vetted by a diverse set of stakeholders over many months; further, we amended them multiple times to address legitimate concerns. But despite our best efforts, all of these bills ultimately fell victim to special interests whose desire for secrecy won out over the rights and needs of the people of Texas. We can and should do better when it comes to an issue as fundamental as government transparency.

But there was one silver lining: The Texas House of Representatives and the Texas Senate passed a concurrent resolution requesting a select committee to study transparency laws and make recommendations before the 2019 legislative session. This provides a great opportunity for us to reaffirm and strengthen the public’s right to know what its government is up to.

We hope the creation of this select committee will mark the beginning of real change.  But that will only happen if public officials and citizens take a strong stand for government transparency. Simply put, we need leaders who aren’t afraid to challenge the status quo.

We have heard “I’m all for transparency, but…” far too often. Now it’s time to come together to restore and improve our open government laws. The people of Texas deserve no less.

Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, and Rep. Todd Hunter, R-Corpus Christi, spearheaded efforts to reform government transparency laws during the recent session of the Texas Legislature.

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