Opinion: Transparency in government – The battle continues

by | Jan 31, 2019 | Opinion

A lot of ink is going to be spilled over the next 140 days writing about what the Texas Legislature should do and does when it comes to school finance and property tax reforms.

Just as important, though, will be the decisions that lawmakers reach when it comes to government transparency. It’s a topic that deserves just as much ink, literally, but which some powerful forces are actively working to hide behind a cloak of opacity.

One of the broad issues the Texas Press Association battles each session is the state’s taxpayer funded lobbying groups pushing efforts to remove public notices from newspapers. It’s a goal that the  Texas Municipal League, Texas Association of School Boards, Texas Association of Counties and many other similar groups have pursued for years — arguing that newspapers are getting rich by overcharging taxing entities for public notices and that simply putting them on the taxing entities’ websites would work just fine.

I’ve got two questions for you. One: When was the last time you checked one of those websites for information about an upcoming public meeting or hearing?

Two: Over or under — Scurry County’s seven taxing entities spent one half of one percent of their total budgets on public notices. During their most recently completed fiscal years, Scurry County’s seven taxing bodies combined spent less than $13,000 on public notices. Those notices included hearings about possible building condemnations, information about tax rates and hearings, and major expenditures of public money. 

And while $13,000 is real money, those seven taxing bodies budgeted to spend more than $96 million during the same time period. I’m no math whiz, but that works out to just more than one tenth of one percent.

The Texas Press Association is also working with legislators to address a series of appeals court rulings that blew huge holes in Texas’ long-admired open government laws. 

Among them are:

  • The “Boeing” bill, made necessary by a devastating Texas Supreme Court ruling that a company holding a contract with a governmental body can withhold details of that contract on grounds it could weaken the company’s competitive position. You can read more about this one in today’s editorial from The Brownsville Herald.
  • The “Greater Houston Partnership” bill, the result of another ruling by the Texas Supreme Court. The court ruled that the partnership, a regional economic development group, was not obliged to tell taxpayers how it spends tax money received from the City of Houston.
  • The “DOB” bill, which would have restored public access to dates of birth in government records. The 3rd Court of Appeals ruled the information should be withheld for privacy reasons, throwing a wrench into not only the media’s use of the crucial identifier, but to the use of dates of birth by lenders, credit check companies and commercial database providers, among others. The Texas Supreme Court declined to review the Third Court ruling, giving it the weight of law and obliterating decades of precedent.
  • The “Dead Suspects” bill, which was designed to plug a gaping hole in statutes providing access to police files. State law says once an investigation is closed, the information should be available to the public. But in numerous cases effectively closed by the death of the only suspect — i.e., the Austin serial bomber case — police have kept the case designated as “open,” thereby avoiding disclosure.
  • The “Custodian Loophole” bill, designed to plug another loophole. State law says a record is deemed “public” based on its content — not on the device on which it’s stored. But there is currently no enforcement mechanism to compel a public official to provide a record from his privately owned device.

We’ll be sure to devote plenty of that ink we joke about buying by the truckload on school finance and property tax reform, but we’ll also be devoting plenty to making sure our state’s laws favor all levels of government operating transparently.

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