Austin, Dallas area lawmakers collaborate on legislation that would strengthen Public Information Act

After two recent Texas Supreme Court decisions widened loopholes against the Texas Public Information Act, Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, is reaching across the aisle, and statehouse, to Rep. Giovanni Capriglione, R-Southlake. The two legislators pre-filed bills Tuesday to close the loopholes.

Each bill addresses a separate ruling made by the Texas Supreme Court. The first of the bills (HB 792 and SB 407), referred to as the “Boeing fix,” tackles the 2015 decision made in Boeing v. Paxton. The decision allowed private businesses to claim exceptions to open records requests on the grounds of maintaining a competitive business advantage both now and in the future.

Capriglione said this category is wide enough to render the Public Information Act meaningless.

“If we don’t get this fixed in this session, over the next two years, the Public Information Act will effectively be moot,” he said.

Caprigolione and Watson look to fix this by limiting the exception’s use to cases under which a governmental body verifies that the release of information would harm its interests in “a particular competitive situation.” The bills also state the exception does not apply to finalized government contracts.

The second of the legislators’ bills (HB 793 and SB 408) address the decision made in Greater Houston Partnership v. Paxton. The court case altered a 30-year-old precedent, which said publicly-supported private entities must comply with the Public Information Act. In the 2015 court decision, justices replaced “supported” with “sustained.”

Watson and Capriglione said previous wording held these types of organizations far more accountable than the newer standard. The bills filed to address this case would require any private entity receiving public funds to comply with the Public Information Act unless the money was received at an arms-length contract for services.

The bills also establish Public Information Act accountability for businesses that receive public funds via an agency-type relationship with a public entity or businesses that provide services traditionally provided by a governmental body.

The Texas Public Information Act gives residents the right to access government records without a specific reason. It presumes all government information is available to the public.

Watson said maintaining the government’s transparency is vital to holding it responsible.

“Those [court cases] were big steps away from that very important ideal that the public will have [the] information they need so they can hold their government accountable.”