Legislators pass transparency bills addressing pandemic problems, but open government work remains unfinished

Texas lawmakers approved two key transparency measures this session to ensure greater access to public records after some governments closed off information during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Gov. Greg Abbott signed both bills in the final days of the legislative session. The laws take effect Sept. 1.

Senate Bill 930 by Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, guarantees the public’s right to know about coronavirus and other communicable disease outbreaks in nursing homes and assisted living centers. Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, co-authored the legislation, and Reps. Mayes Middleton, R-Wallisville, and Toni Rose, D-Dallas, co-sponsored the bill in the House of Representatives.

Senate Bill 1225 by Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, updates existing law to clarify how governmental bodies can use the “catastrophe notice” provision of the Texas Public Information Act. Rep. Chris Paddie, R-Marshall, sponsored the measure in the House, along with Reps. Richard Raymond, D-Laredo, and Terry Canales, D-Edinburg.

The legislation specifies that governments are allowed a seven-day break from responding to information requests amid a catastrophe such as a hurricane, flood or epidemic if the disaster directly causes the government to be unable to comply with the public information law. One seven-day extension of the initial suspension is permitted. During the COVID-19 pandemic, some governments took multiple seven-day suspensions.

“We are certainly glad lawmakers made these important improvements to Texas open government laws. And a number of legislators worked hard to pass additional transparency bills in response to the pandemic, but they did not make it across the finish line,” said Kelley Shannon, executive director of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, one of 20 diverse organizations in the Transparent and Accountable Government Coalition.

The Texas House approved legislation addressing the impact of remote work and “skeleton crews” by government employees on the Public Information Act; ensuring better citizen access to virtual public meetings; requiring governmental bodies to respond to records requests or face sanctions; restoring access to dates of birth in most public records; and making it clear requestors can obtain government records in searchable-sortable formats. The Senate did not act on those measures.

“The House was tremendously supportive of sweeping reform to the open government and transparency laws brought forth by the bipartisan TAG Coalition only to have the majority of the agenda stymied in the Senate. We are hopeful Governor Abbott will see the importance of these measures and add them to the special session call. Texans have the right to know how their government operates and bad precedent set during the pandemic continues to thwart average citizens from obtaining this critical information,” said Laura Prather, co-chair of the FOI Foundation’s legislative committee.

In addition to advocating for proactive open government measures, Prather, FOI Foundation president Arif Panju and others succeeded this session in opposing legislation that would have severely weakened the Public Information Act.