Texas was once a model for states looking to create effective public records laws. But in 2015, decisions by the state’s highest court severely dented Texas laws that are supposed to provide the public and the press with insight into how state government does its business. But during the 2019 legislative session, government transparency has been making a comeback.
David McSwane, an investigative reporter for The Dallas Morning News, says two Texas Supreme Court’s rulings in 2015 said information about contracts between the state and private companies could be kept secret if the business has competitors.
“This was really new,” McSwane says. “Contracts are pretty much considered mega public records. They’re generally the most public a record can be. So it really damaged the records law.”
The change in the law was quickly invoked by many government entities, including the City of McAllen. Residents wanted to know how much the city had paid Enrique Iglesias for a concert performance. The city refused to say.
McSwane says the most important of this session’s transparency bills would address what kinds of agreements are releasable. Other than trade secrets and other proprietary information, which is already protected from release, all other information contained government contracts would be subject to release. That includes what an agency buys and what was paid to the business.
“In the past couple of years, companies and agencies have used this as a loophole to keep these things from coming out,” McSwane says.
McSwane says lawmakers in both parties were eager to patch the loophole the Supreme Court’s decision created. Democrats and Republicans in the House and Senate partnered to pass the bill. Gov. Greg Abbott has not announced whether he will sign the bill.
Written by Shelly Brisbin.