Senate Maneuvers to Undo Court Rulings That Keep Public Records Secret, But House Approval Uncertain

AUSTIN – Bills to increase transparency and make government records more accessible to the public, including a measure to restore access to contracts between companies and government bodies, got stuck in a House committee. So on Thursday a Sen. Kirk Watson, an Austin Democrat, appended to a House bill an amalgam of tweaks that he and open records advocates crafted, which passed the Senate 30-1 and now head to the House, where their fate is uncertain.That maneuver gives new life to a half dozen bills that have languished in the lower chamber despite bipartisan support, including two key bills he introduced along with his Republican House counterpart, Rep. Giovanni Capriglione of South Lake."This is one of those bills that's a very good bill for the public," Watson said Thursday. "This is a big, important bill."The bipartisan duo authored a legislative fix following a Texas Supreme Court ruling, in Boeing v. Paxton, that essentially made secret contracts between private companies and government bodies, from the local school board up to the governor's office. The court ruled in favor of the company and said those records, which for decades have been routinely made public, could give competitors an unfair advantage.The bipartisan duo also introduced a bill to reverse a separate ruling that Greater Houston Partnership, a nonprofit funded with taxpayer dollars, wasn't subject to the Texas Public Information Act. That ruling essentially shields hundreds of quasi-governmental organizations from releasing records about how they spend public dollars.Those two rulings "created darkness where there should have been light," Watson said.Watson's amendments effectively restore the public records law to what it was before 2015, when the state's highest civil court significantly diminished the law. Ironically, that year lawmakers, led by Republican Sen. Jane Nelson, passed sweeping state contract reforms in response to revelations of a contract scandal at the state's largest agency, the Health and Human Services Commission.The alarming conflicts of interest that led to a $110 million deal between the commission and Austin tech company 21 CT were first reported by the Austin American-Statesman, which built its investigation on records requests for contract documents which, now, would be kept secret. Both bills overwhelmingly passed the Senate, but they were dying a slow death in the House Government Transparency and Operation Committee, who's chairman, Rep. Gary Elkins, has sided with powerful business groups who want to keep such records secret."A lot of people happen to think the Supreme Court got it right," the Houston Republican told the Corpus Christi Caller-Times.Watson said the upper chamber has sent the House a good bill that "closes significant loopholes.""I'm hopeful," he said.Watson essentially glued provisions in the stuck bills to a House bill he carried in the upper chamber for Rep. Eddie Lucio III, a Brownsville Democrat. That bill creates an expedited process for denying the release of public information that circumvents the required opinion by the attorney general's office, which has in recent years been hammered with requests for records opinions from agencies seeking to withhold records.Under Lucio's bill, government employees who receive special training may withhold records or portions of records without seeking an AG opinion, so long as they deny that information within five business days after receipt of a public records request.One of Watson's amendments will increase the release of dates of birth on government records, such as criminal arrest records, which was standard practice until a recent court ruling made secret all dates of birth. Previously, state law narrowly exempted the release of dates of birth for certain employees, such as police, due to privacy concerns.The expansion of that exemption to all dates of birth is problematic, news organizations and open records advocates say, because it makes it impossible to distinguish between two people with identical names. Similarly, citizens and journalists have had trouble finding candidates' birth dates, which are necessary to do criminal background checks or ensure a candidate meets age requirements to run for public office.Watson also appended tweaks to the Texas Public Information Act to crack down on gimmicks some local and state government offices are using to deny records, including a clarification that public information stored on a private device, such as a government employee's private phone or lap top, is still public information that must be released.   Continue reading...

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