Media Bills Chill

Reporters Get the Cold Shoulder From Legislators

The City of Austin isn't the only entity that quakes in its boots when the legislature hits town -- news outlets and any other interests that may be concerned with freedom of information (which, when you get right down to it, is everyone) always fear an assault on the public's right to know, and according to press lobbyists, this session was one of the worst in recent memory. It's interesting to note that M.J. Niccio, a lobbyist for the Texas Daily Newspaper Association (TDNA) identifies an anti-ambulance-chaser bill as the worst thing to happen to freedom of information, but there's a lot worse news that came out of the 77th Lege. Under bills that were passed into law this session, a wide range of information was declared off limits to the public and various entities are now exempted from open records and open meetings requirements.

SB1069, the bill Niccio claims is the "worst," limits access to motor vehicle accident reports, which Niccio said is dangerous "from a public safety standpoint. The public might want to know about dangerous intersections." From the reporter's perspective, "You can't portray what happened in an accident unless you know the names of someone who was involved."

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Mike Moncrief (D-Fort Worth), is a source of frustration for the TDNA because the organization had already defeated it once -- the legislation had initially appeared as HB399, sponsored by Rep. Toby Goodman (R-Arlington), and although it passed the legislature, Governor George W. Bush vetoed it. But when press lobbyists -- and Bush -- weren't looking, the language of 399 was slipped into 1069 and made its way into law.

The purpose of the bill, according to Moncrief's office, was to prevent accident victims from becoming targets of vulture-like businesses hoping to profit from their misfortune. However, says the TDNA, "other and better methods have been found to do that without closing public records."

Both the TDNA and the Texas Press Association, a larger group which encompasses more than just dailies, have filed suit in Travis County District Court seeking an injunction to prevent enforcement of the law, which takes effect on September 1.

That Niccio would place 1069 at the top of his list of bad bills may be a reflection of the mainstream news media's tendency to spend too much time covering the sensational (car wrecks, murders, etc.), but he has a point about the public safety perspective.

Another, more troubling bill that Niccio listed among the heinous is SB439, sponsored by Sen. Chris Harris (R-Arlington; the TDNA really seems to have problems with Republicans from Arlington, don't they?). The bill restricts access to draft audits of any governmental body, including institutions of higher education. The effect, says Niccio, is that these bodies can hear an audit but never officially finalize it; by keeping it in the draft stages, governments can prevent reporters and citizens from analyzing it in detail. Again, it was a misdirection play that helped get it into law; although 439 itself never even got a hearing, it was added by Sen. Bill Ratliff (R-Mount Pleasant) to HB2906 and made its way into law.

Niccio said that the sponsor of 2906, Rep. Steve Wolens (D-Dallas) "is pro-open records. I don't think he even knew it was added, maybe still doesn't." (Wolens was not available for comment at press time.)

Even more blatant was SB1354, sponsored by Sen. Buster Brown (R-Lake Jackson), which made information compiled by the Board of Lease of University Lands confidential and exempt from the open records act. This bill would prevent another reoccurrence of the Jose Luna case, in which a whistleblower charged that the University of Texas was shortchanging the Permanent University Fund on royalties. Now such possible improprieties can't be followed by the public, Niccio says.

Also, the lobbyist says, "several good bills failed because of anti-FOI groups like the University of Texas, the Texas Municipal League, the Texas Association of School Boards, and the District and County Attorneys Association."

One particularly good bill that died in committee was HB764, authored by Rep. Glen Maxey (D-Austin). This bill would have broadened the open meetings act to include businesses which provide a service that previously had been provided by the state. In this era when more and more of government's responsibilities are being privatized, the public has less authority to oversee the spending of its own tax dollars, and less ability to hold the private providers accountable. Not surprisingly, the Lege fell on the side of the businesses, rather than the public. Maxey also authored HB935, which would have opened physician files to the public, files that included extensive checks on the doctors' backgrounds, but this bill also died.

Niccio had little good news for FOI advocates -- about the best he came up with was HB951, which overruled an attorney general's opinion stipulating that requests for public information via e-mail can be discarded. Now, as long as the request goes to the custodian of records, an e-mail will be considered just as valid as any other form. The most solid gains for FOI advocates came in getting the government to publicize information about sex offenders through HB1176, and that's not surprising given the heavy "tough on crime" bent of the Lege.

More typical were bills such as: HB625, which closes off information about businesses trying to do business with the state and seeking to prove status as a historically underutilized business (mainly meaning minority- or female-owned businesses); SB407, which closes access to information regarding the licensing of abortion providers; HB1324, which restricts information regarding 911 services, including recordings; HB2328, which allows public hospitals like Brackenridge to hold closed board meetings; and HB1808, which could particularly affect Austin, in that it makes information collected by a state conservation board or district confidential if it comes from a landowner-requested study -- in other words, if a landowner discovers, with taxpayer-funded assistance, that his/her business or actions may damage water quality, that information can be kept secret.

Thankfully, many particularly hideous bills (like most bills in general) died and never even came before Bush's pen. HB2409, sponsored by Rep. Garnet Coleman (D-Houston) would have made confidential reports on deaths in adult foster care homes. This could have seriously hobbled Denise Gamino's reporting on nursing homes in Texas, consistently one of the brightest spots at the Austin American-Statesman.

It's downright frightening that such bills are even proposed. Concealing records is completely contrary to the spirit of democracy; anytime a government official tries to do so, the public should be suspicious, and journalists have a responsibility to ask why.

Most of the above information was gleaned from NewsHound, the newsletter of the Austin Pro Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. As long as we're cribbing from them, the following quote simply must be reprinted:

Former Governor Preston Smith was discussing his former aide Bob Bolluck, who is now the retiring lieutenant governor, and described Bullock's relations with the 1960s press corps thusly: "The Capitol correspondents, he always supplied them with whiskey and booze and things like that.... They were all friendly with him -- and still are. A good many of them went to work for him when he got to be comptroller."

Recommended Reading:
The Consortium, an investigative magazine based in Washington, D.C., has been running an interesting series on the Rev. Sun Myung Moon and the billions of dollars in political contributions he has made to conservative political figures in the United States, including former president George Bush. The articles raise some interesting questions about Bush's son, Texas Governor George W. Bush, who may run for the presidency in 2000. The Consortium is published by Robert Parry, a former Associated Press reporter who was instrumental in breaking the Iran-Contra scandal in the Eighties. For more information on The Consortium, go to http://www.delve.com/consort.html, or call 800/738-1812.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for almost 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

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