For nearly half a century, Texans have been fortunate to have one of the nation’s strongest open records laws.
All United States citizens can use open records requests to get information from the government that is legally available to the public, but may not already be visibly published on a government websites or other easily accessible places.
But recently, Texas’ status as a leading “Right to Know” state has come under scrutiny. A recent report by the Dallas Morning News shows more often than not that people seeking public records from their local and state officials have been left high and dry.
Terri Langford of the Dallas Morning News reported on the alarming rate of open records requests both Texas citizens and journalists have been denied within the past several years.
She says in the last 15 to 20 years a lot more people, on both the public and the government side are knowledgeable about the Public Information Act and are using it. But Texas has also gained skills in being able to determine whether they have to grant the public that information or not.
“[The public is] asking for things that are more likely to be exempt than ever,” Langford says.
When a government agency denies all or part of a records request, they have to forward that denial to the Attorney General’s office for review.
“It’s the final umpire for open records requests,” Langford says.
Langford reported that in 2001, governments forwarded 6,149 denied requests to the attorney general’s office. In 2015, that number rose to 27,383 – a more than 400 percent increase.
It could be because more people are filing records requests, but there’s no way of knowing, Langford says, because no one keeps that data.
Some lawmakers say they want to restore the original intent of the open records, and a few bills are coming up the legislative session.
But anything that helps open records laws in Texas has a mixed record getting through the Republican-dominated legislature, Langford says.
Terri Langford’s report is part of a collection of Dallas Morning News stories highlighting Sunshine Week, an annual, nationwide celebration of access to public information.
Written by Beth Cortez-Neavel.