Analysis: Texas lawmakers asked for a study on open government. They’re still waiting.

By Executive Director, Headliners Foundation

April 2, 2018

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Efforts to close loopholes in the state’s open information laws fell short at the end of last year’s legislative session. An interim committee intended to get a head start before the 2019 session hasn’t met. Its members haven’t even been named.

By Ross Ramsey, The Texas Tribune

Credit: Todd Wiseman / Guillermo Esteves

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It makes little sense to scold someone without first reminding them that they are supposed to take care of something — and that they haven’t taken care of it yet.

Hold the scolding, then, but here’s the prompt: Tie reminder ribbons around Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s and Texas House Speaker Joe Straus’ index fingers. The Texas Legislature unanimously passed — and the governor signed — a Senate resolution last year to create a committee to work on patches to the state’s open information laws.

It’s supposed to be a joint committee, with members from the House and Senate. Neither Patrick nor Straus has named members to it, however, and so the committee hasn’t started its work.

There’s still time. Texas lawmakers will convene for their regular session next January, and the committee’s work has to be done before then. But time killed a number of proposed fixes last year. State Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, and state Rep. Todd Hunter, R-Corpus Christi — the authors — told an Austin audience on Thursday that they’d really like to get to work.

Appearing on an open government panel at the Texas Public Policy Foundation (The Texas Tribune was among the co-sponsors), the two legislators said they’re waiting for their presiding officers — Patrick and Straus — to call the dance.

You might remember this fight from a year ago. Lawmakers spent a lot of time working on bills that would close a “monster loophole” that allows companies doing public work to keep some public records secret, would require nonprofits receiving taxpayer money to disclose more about their operations, would limit the competitive bidding exemption in open information law, and would return birthdates in public records to the public view to more accurately identify people with the same or similar names.

It’s a long list. These are hard issues. What’s interesting, though, is that both Democrats and Republicans are openly for open government. Some aren’t, which is why a significant pile of proposed legislation ended up in the trash bin last session. Those bills ran out of time; more accurately, they were pushed down the agenda until they were ultimately killed by deadlines. And that’s the argument for an early start.

The fundamentals are already in state law, in language so clear that even a nimble and sneaky government functionary can understand it:

“Under the fundamental philosophy of the American constitutional form of representative government that adheres to the principle that government is the servant and not the master of the people, it is the policy of this state that each person is entitled, unless otherwise expressly provided by law, at all times to complete information about the affairs of government and the official acts of public officials and employees. The people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know. The people insist on remaining informed so that they may retain control over the instruments they have created. The provisions of this chapter shall be liberally construed to implement this policy. This chapter shall be liberally construed in favor of granting a request for information.”

And one need not be a journalist or an open government maven to have particular affection for that defiant sentence in the middle: “The people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know.”

That’s the preamble to the Texas open government laws, a shiny chunk of clarity in the dusty Government Code.  Maybe it would work better as a tattoo, required for the keepers of government records who can’t seem to remember who’s in charge.

Disclosure: The Texas Public Policy Foundation has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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