Texas lawmakers have an opportunity this session to patch one of the biggest holes the state’s courts have ever blown in the Texas Public Information Act.
In 2015, the Texas Supreme Court ruled the Port Authority of San Antonio, which was in contract negotiations with military and aerospace company Boeing, could withhold documents sought through the Texas Public Information Act. The oddly named port authority was set up to redevelop the former Kelly Air Force Base for private commercial use.
The authority and Boeing sought to withhold some information about the pending deal under provisions in the law protecting information that “if released, would give advantage to a competitor or bidder.”
The Attorney General determined that none of the withheld information was exempt from disclosure under the act and both a trial court and an appeals court agreed.
The Texas Supreme Court, however, disagreed with all three and allowed Boeing and the authority to withhold the information.
There might have been some justification in the Supreme Court decision in that case. Both public and private organizations do at times have legitimate reasons for keeping information from public view when release of that information might undermine the public’s own best interest.
The precedent the court set with that 2015 ruling has clearly been abused since then, however.
Citing the Boeing decision, governments have been able to keep the public in the dark on details about thousands of government deals with private firms.
The Texas Attorney General has cited the Boeing decision as grounds to withhold information 2,600 times, according to a count by the Austin American-Statesman.
The examples range from the profound to the farcical.
One is a power plant contract that the Statesman reported was the most expensive project in the city of Denton’s history.
Another is a list of candidates for city manager in Austin.
The most infamous, and ridiculous, misuse of the ruling allowed the city of McAllen to withhold from taxpayers how much they had to pay Enrique Iglesias to perform a concert in their city.
Whatever the merit in the court’s original decision, its legacy has been to undermine the Texas Public Information Act and the concept of government transparency in general.
The proper remedy in this case is legislation clarifying what information should be exempted from public disclosure and what should not be.
Fortunately for the taxpaying public, Sen. Kirk Watson, an Austin Democrat, and state Rep. Giovanni Capriglione, a Republican representing Southlake, have drafted legislation that would close the Boeing hole.
Their identical bills — Senate Bill 943 and House Bill 2189 — spell out in good detail a common-sense list of what can be withheld and what must be disclosed.
For example, a government agency contracting with a private firm must disclose the final cost, the timeline for the work, the basic components of the job and documentation showing whether the work was properly completed, among other basic facts the public needs to determine whether its government is working in its interest.
This legislation is necessary and proper. All Texas lawmakers truly committed to government transparency must support it.
• Michael A. Smith