The Austin Chronicle

Who Owns the Legislature’s Archives?

State Library Sunset bill lets lawmakers hold the keys

By Michael King, April 12, 2019, News

House Bill 1962 (authored by Rep. Stan Lambert, R-Abilene) is the reauthorization of the Texas State Library and Archives Commission, following the agency's Sunset review. The State Library, which occupies the imposing Lorenzo de Zavala Building directly east of the Capitol, is the repository of both rare and major collections of Texas historical papers, and collaborates with local governments across the state on records management (as well as supporting local libraries and Texas readers). The Sunset bill, extending the tenure of the agency until 2031, is mostly unremarkable: It would update the training program for commissioners; improve acquisition programs and enable sale of replicas; amend retention schedules and processes for county and other local government records; and require the creation of a "strategic plan" for the archives.

The most curious provision of the bill, though, concerns "Archival Legislative Records." According to this provision, any "legislative entity" (including any member of the Legislature) transferring records to the State Library (or any other official depository; the Austin History Center is one) would henceforth "retain ownership" of those records (currently the ownership is held by the State Library) and could request their return at any time. The change appears innocuous, but creates the possibility that some records would periodically disappear into legislative limbo, potentially to foil their exploration by journalists, opposition researchers, and the like.

Public information requests for legislative records are administered by the State Library, which is also charged with maintaining any necessary confidentiality in handling those requests. Under the revised law, documents might be retained by a legislator indefinitely, creating both maintenance and tracking headaches for archivists. The House Research Organization bill analysis of this provision warned (i.e., "opponents say"): "Because the bill is fully retroactive, it would give the Legislature legal custody of legislative records of immense historical and monetary value without safeguarding their care and protection. ... By granting the Legislature and its affiliated agencies unchecked privileges over archival information, [the bill] could erode public trust in government."

The change in ownership struck the State Library as potentially burdensome, and (in correspondence with the Legislative Budget Board) staff estimated it could cost the agency an additional $275,000 a year in staff and resources. But LBB budget analyst Louellen Lowe decided that the State Library's responsibilities for the legislative records would remain essentially unchanged and concluded, "I think they could absorb it." Consequently, the fiscal note on the bill – dated March 29 – addressed to House Committee on Culture, Recreation, & Tourism Chair John Cyrier, R-Lockhart, read: "No significant fiscal implication to the State is anticipated." (The bill was scheduled for House floor debate April 9.)

In an official statement on the bill, State Librarian Mark Smith thanked the Sunset Advisory Commission and the bill's sponsors, and wrote: "We are looking forward to continuing our mission of over 110 years to serve the people of Texas by supporting library service statewide, preserve the archives of Texas, serve the reading needs of people with disabilities, and assist state and local government with records management practices."

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