Legislators need to shine the light

By Dallas Morning News Editorial

2:31 AM on Feb 16, 2023

Dallas Morning News

The Texas Public Information Act passed in 1973 enabled Texans to shine a light on government, from everyday business to corrupt dealing. But ever since its passage, the Texas Legislature and government officials have chipped away at the law with new exceptions.

During the pandemic, state and local government didn’t always provide stable ways for the public to hear meetings remotely. Public officials, meanwhile, relied on prior opinions from the attorney general’s office to deny public information requests, even when the requests and the prior opinions didn’t clearly align.

Public information requests are crucial to public access to information about local government, whether that’s zoning in a specific area or how money is being spent by a school district. But bureaucrats and politicians are too often devoted to skirting or undermining the law.

The Sunshine Coalition, an umbrella group including politically diverse public policy advocates from the Texas Public Policy Foundation to the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, is advocating for a number of bills this session that aim to strengthen open government.

That includes two bills filed by state Sen. Nathan Johnson, D-Dallas, that aim to restore the law’s intention and address new workarounds.

Senate Bill 618 would amend the TPIA to clarify the meaning of non-business days under the statute to address the failure of government bodies to respond timely to information requests. The law gives government agencies 10 business days to respond to a request, a timeline that is frequently abused or ignored.

While people who request public information and are either denied what they ask for or ignored altogether have always been able to file a complaint with the attorney general’s office, Johnson’s proposed law formalizes the process.

Meanwhile, loopholes continue to plague the law. In 2015, a legal decision saw many government contracts shielded from the public eye. In 2019, the Sunshine Coalition helped pass Senate Bill 943 in an effort to open contracts while protecting proprietary information. But some government bodies still found ways around it.

Johnson has now filed Senate Bill 680, which fine tunes definitions to clarify what contractual information must be released, including material matters like operating costs.

There are other bills filed this session that attempt to close other loopholes in the current code, and we urge the Legislature to evaluate their effectiveness and consider passing them.

The opening chapter of the TPIA states that Texans, in delegating their authority to public officials, do not give those officials the right to decide what is “good for people to know and what is not good for them to know.” These powerful words should not be forgotten.

Public records belong to Texans. Elected officials should remember that.

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Dallas Morning News Editorial. Dallas Morning News editorials are written by the paper’s Editorial Board and serve as the voice and view of the paper. The board considers a broad range of topics and is overseen by the Editorial Page Editor.[email protected] @dmnopinion