Open gov. advocates say bills would strengthen public records access

Texas Politics

AUSTIN (Nexstar) — Advocates of open government want Texas lawmakers to pass legislation they say would ensure legislative and state records were available to the public and press. 

The House State Affairs Committee discussed several bills related to open government Wednesday. House Bill 2189 would give taxpayers the right to view final government contracts with private companies and know how non-profit organizations acting as an arm of the government are spending its tax dollars.  

The bill, filed by Rep. Giovanni Capriglione, R-Southlake, defines contracting information as public and would mandate the documents to be public. However, there are special exceptions related to the confidentiality of proprietary information or trade secrets. 

“It’s really important for the public to be able to be able to see how their taxpayer money is spent,” Kelley Shannon, executive director of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, said.  

The Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas is part of a larger non-partisan group called the Texas Sunshine Coalition, comprised of 15 different organizations. The coalition has worked with lawmakers on the language in legislation related to open government matters. 

Shannon said Texas Supreme Court rulings from 2015 put big holes in the Public Information Act where sometimes even final contract amounts can’t be viewed by the public. In Boeing Co. V. Paxton, the Texas Supreme Court ruled Boeing demonstrated the information at issue was completely sensitive and would give an advantage to competitors if released. Since then, it’s been cited in numerous open records battles allowing a lot of records statewide to be withheld. 

Different representatives from media organizations and an attorney representing business clients testified in favor of Rep. Capriglione’s bill. However, AGC of Texas testified about some concerns over how the bill would apply to its members. AGC of Texas represents the highway, heavy, utilities and industrial branch of the Associated General Contracts of America. Tracy Schieffer, who is a member and a general contractor with A.L. Helmcamp, Inc. told legislators she was worried this would burden small and medium-sized companies with having to find additional staff to serve as legal counsel on public information issues. 

Austin attorney Rob Johnson told lawmakers on the committee there was no reason for an adversarial relationship between companies and open government advocates that took place in previous years and this bill helps find that balance in helping business interests and protecting the information taxpayers should be able to access. 

“Even businesses that contract with the government, they realize there’s got to be a certain amount of transparency and public access,” Shannon said. “After all, they are using public money.” 

“Last session, there was a lot more animosity or a lot more negatively floating around,” Shannon continued. “This session, it’s been much more positive and it goes to show all the hard work that’s been done bringing together all of the interest groups beforehand and trying to reach that common ground.” 

House Bill 1655, filed by Rep. Todd Hunter, R-Corpus Christi, would allow for public access of birth dates from public records.  

According to a bill analysis for HB 1655, cities and counties are not anticipated to have a significant fiscal impact from this legislation. 

House Bill 1700, also filed by Hunter, would allow access to public records from the personal digital communications of public officials, such as emails. This bill would not require public officials to hand over their private digital communications.  

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