The 2019 Texas legislative session wrapped up in May, and Gov. Greg Abbott finished signing bills in June, but we’re still sorting out some of the implications of those new laws.
Dallas Morning News reporter Lauren McGaughy reports that one new law will help shield more lawmakers’ documents from public scrutiny, and that could mean obscuring conversations about political districts.
McGaughy says Fort Worth Republican Rep. Charlie Geren, who sponsored House Bill 4181, said he did so to keep the legislature “siloed” from outside pressure from the state’s executive and judicial branches.
“And then, kind of surprisingly to me, he went into problems with redistricting back in 2011,” McGaughy says.
Geren said that when judges were hearing challenges to the legislature’s redistricting plans, it wasn’t clear which documents were confidential, and which legislators needed to disclose. He believes the new law establishes those distinctions.
McGaughy says it’s already difficult for the press to obtain emails between legislators and constituents or attorneys “because they have authority to claim that a lot of these communications are already confidential,” she says. “They could say there’s attorney-client privilege, or they could say ‘oh, you know, this is a private citizen from my district reaching out to me for advice of a problem,’ and that’s not subject to the public records laws.”
The new law says any communication between legislators and almost anyone who works at the Capitol is not subject to disclosure.
McGaughy says the bill was described during the legislative session as a “cleanup” measure that updates the way lawmakers put committees together and how they hold House debates.
“They did, kind of as an aside, mention this would also discuss what’s confidential and what’s not,” McGaughy says.
Lawmakers don’t agree about the law’s implications for redistricting transparency.
“There are civil rights attorneys that … were deeply, deeply concerned that this bill was essentially written to give lawmakers cover – to hide the decision-making process for when they rewrite their voting maps in the next couple of years.”
Few lawmakers opposed the bill during the session, or mentioned its possible impact on redistricting, McGaughy says.
Written by Shelly Brisbin.