Texas lawmakers did a commendable job this session patching some of the biggest holes the state’s courts had blown in open government laws.
Among the most important of those repairs was in Senate Bill 943, which went to Gov. Greg Abbott on May 23. The governor had not signed the bill into law as of Friday. It will become law with or without his signature unless he vetoes it. We urge the governor not to prevent this important piece of reform law from taking effect.
The bill restores the public’s right to documents about contract negotiations between public and private organizations, which was lost in a 2015 Texas Supreme Court decision.
In the “Boeing decision,” which is infamous among people interested in government transparency, the court ruled the Port Authority of San Antonio, which was in contract negotiations with the military and aerospace company, could withhold documents sought through the Texas Public Information Act.
The Supreme Court overruled the Attorney General’s Office, a district court and an appeals court, all of which had ruled the information must be made public.
The court’s 2015 precedent was frequently abused thereafter.
Citing the Boeing decision, governments had been able to keep the public in the dark on details about thousands of government deals with private firms involving at least millions of public dollars.
The Texas Attorney General cited the Boeing decision as grounds to withhold information more than 2,600 times.
The examples range from the profound to the farcical.
The most 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.
The legislature closed that hole even more specifically with House Bill 81, which compels the disclosure of records relating to local events paid for with public dollars. Abbott signed the bill into law May 17.
Another big win for open government advocates, and the public at large, was Senate Bill 1640, which restores a prohibition against government officials participating in “walking quorums,” a euphemism for sneaking around to do the public’s business in secret.
The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals had gutted a provision in the Texas Open Meetings Act making it a misdemeanor offense for elected officials to knowingly conspire to circumvent the state’s open meetings law by gathering in numbers less than a quorum for the purpose of secret deliberations.
The prohibition against secret deliberations is, of course, among the pillars of all open government laws. Without it, the rest is mere stage direction, a set of rules about how to orchestrate political theater.
The bill, which clarifies the prohibition against those secret meetings and restores criminal penalties for violating the law, went to Abbott on May 23. The governor should not stand in the way of restoring this fundamental protection of the public’s right to know its own business.
While the 86th session of the Texas Legislature might be judged as fair to middlin’ on open government law, the public interest lost in a couple of cases.
An attempt to close the notorious “dead suspects” loophole died despite the best efforts of open government advocates and lawmakers. That means law enforcement agencies can continue hiding records about people who die in custody or are killed in encounters with police officers.
And lawmakers passed another affront to transparency in Senate Bill 494, which allows governmental bodies to convene emergency meetings with only one hour notice, and far worse, ignore requests for public information filed for an undefined “temporary” period after a loosely defined “catastrophe.” If Abbott is itching to veto something, SB 494 would be a good pick.
• Michael A. Smith