Just the Facts
Bills to Watch
- HB 156 by Rep. Steve Wolens, D-Dallas, which would close the "staff briefings" loophole in the Texas Open Meetings Act by changing the definition of "meeting" to include a gathering at which a quorum of a governmental body receives or gives information and/or asks or receives questions from anyone regarding public business, including an employee of the body. "The bill originally exempted educational institutions," says Tillotson, "but we met with UT officials and got that part taken out."
- SB 1041 by Wentworth, which would impose civil penalties for violations of open meetings and open records acts.
- SB 1046 by Wentworth, which would require the Sunset Advisory Commission to give a report card on how well an agency has encouraged public participation with its rules and decisions, and on what kind of response an agency has had to requests for public information. The Sunset Commission is the state government agency which reviews government bodies every 12 years and forces them to justify their existence, and then recommends to the Legislature that the body in question be continued or abolished.
- Tillotson was also pleased that the so-called "veggie libel" law will be struck down if HB 126 by Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon, D-San Antonio, is signed into law. While this is not necessarily an FOI law, the much-publicized "Oprah trial" in Amarillo showed what a chilling effect the law might have on debate in editorial pages.
On the other hand, the organizations have targeted 57 bills for opposition. Among the most egregious, according to Tillotson:
- HB 556 & 557, both by Rep. Bob Hunter, R-Abilene, which would expand the types of criminal records that could be expunged. "If somebody like a public official got adjudication, they could get the record expunged," says Tillotson. "If you ask the sponsor ... he would probably say the intent is to protect defendants' rights and allow them to start over, but this type of law is so easily abused." Hunter was not available for comment at press time, but his legislative aide Mark Shewmaker said that "he doesn't have any intent to hide information from the public."
- HB 801 by Rep. Tom Uher, D-Bay City, which Tillotson says "ostensibly enhances public participation in the TNRCC [Texas Natural Resources Conservation Commission], but also has language that makes getting a public hearing harder." Particularly troubling is vague language saying that the TNRCC, in considering whether to hold a public hearing, may consider whether the requestor of the hearing "states a reasonable basis" for requesting it, and "The commission is not required to hold a public hearing if the basis of the hearing request is unreasonable." Uher's office did not return the Chronicle's call.
The lobbying is paying off, in many circumstances. While this story was being written, several bills which the TDNA/TPA opposed underwent changes resulting from the associations' efforts, causing the groups to reverse course and support the revised legislation. As late as Tuesday, HB 3196, by Domingo Garcia, D-Dallas, went from the bad list to the good. While the bill was intended to strengthen the open records law, the TDNA/TPA was upset by language saying a public information officer may withhold information if he or she "reasonably believes that public access to the requested information is not required." TDNA lobbying director M.J. Niccio said that "we literally gave [Garcia] language to change that, which was inserted into the bill," remedying the associations' complaint.
Ironically, another bill that appears on the TDNA/TPA opposition list was authored by Wentworth himself. SB 919 allows the temporary sealing of search warrant affidavits "if there is a compelling state interest or if releasing the information would endanger a continuing investigation." The associations instead support HB 1246, by Austin Republican Terry Keel, which would do exactly the opposite and open such affidavits for public inspection.
"I wouldn't normally carry this type of bill," Wentworth says, but "law enforcement people say that all the evidence they have in the affidavits is made available even before a suspect can be apprehended. ... If that information is broadcast, the suspects may flee."
However, he otherwise usually sees eye-to-eye with the associations on such issues, and said he is passionate about FOI: "It's because of my belief that access by Texans to both meetings where decisions are made affecting their lives and records kept on their behalf should be open to them," Wentworth says. "It's fundamental to a sense of trust in government that people who are taxed, elect officials, and trust in them should have accountability. It's the basic compact that people have with their elected officials."
Wentworth himself was once a reporter, albeit briefly. However, he says his passion for open government came "not from my experience as a reporter, but from my experience as a county commissioner [in Bexar County] and as a gubernatorially appointed member of a board of regents [with the Texas State University System]. I saw situations and sat in on meetings where people tried to raise issues that were illegal to discuss in private. There are some exceptions where officials can meet in private, but those are specific exceptions [such as employee performance reviews]. I've been in meetings where members of a government body would try to go beyond that."
Wentworth said he helped create laws which request Senate bill sponsors to sign a statement saying whether their bills will increase, reduce, or not affect public access to government. If the sponsors don't sign a statement, then the Legislative Budget Board is required to examine the bill in question and make a statement of its own. "The idea is that everybody will be alerted to a bill that comes through the process of the Senate that has the effect of reducing public access to either information or meetings," Wentworth says. No such law exists for House legislation.
Although every lobby tries to portray its favored legislation as beneficial to the public interests, it's pretty obvious that in the case of the press lobby, it really is. Open records and meetings don't just allow reporters in, they increase access to everyone in the public business.
"Open government isn't a media issue only," Tillotson says. "Most open government requests come from ordinary citizens."
To see the full list of bills being monitored by the TDNA and TPA, go to http://www.tdna.org/legislat.htm or call 476-4351. For the full text of bills, go to the Legislature Web site at http://www.capitol.state.tx.us.