History of LWVTX Action on Open Government; Transparency in Texas Government

History of LWVTX Action on Open Government; Transparency in Texas Government

LWVTX Action + Open Meetings/Open Records: The League supported a successful effort on the part of a coalition of several groups (Common Cause, news media) during the 1987 Legislature to amend the Texas Open Meetings Act to strengthen the provisions on executive sessions of public bodies, requiring them to tape record such sessions or file certified agendas.

In the 1989 session the League supported successful legislation that strengthened the Texas Open Records Act by requiring agencies to make records available within ten days after they are requested and establishing reasonable fees for copying records.

1997: The League supported a bill that would have prohibited closed-door staff briefings of governing boards in cities, counties, school districts, etc., a common practice throughout the state. The bill passed the Senate easily, was voted out of the House committee, but was killed when it was pointed out that the practice is already illegal under current law. Another League supported bill that would have mandated that private contractors, offering services formerly provided by the state, operate under the Open Meetings Act, did not come out of committee.

1999: Two important bills dealing with open meetings and open records statutes were passed during the session. The first bill removed a loophole that allowed governmental bodies to meet in secret without notice when called a "staff briefing." The second bill combined multiple changes in the open records act, preventing delay tactics and restricting the withholding of information.

2001: Although the League followed several bills, none will significantly affect the public's right to know. At the end of the session the League worked with Common Cause and Consumer's Union to defeat several otherwise dead bills that were attached as amendments to still-alive bills. Two of these amendments would have closed certain records to the public. The League's biggest concern, a proposed constitutional amendment making privacy an explicit constitutionally guaranteed right, did not pass.

2005 - SB 286 (Wentworth) and HB 634 (Baxter), both supported by LWV-TX, added an educational requirement to the existing Open Meetings Act and Public Information Act for elected and appointed officials in Texas. This training was one of the legislative priorities of Attorney General Abbott. SB 286 was signed by the governor.

2006: See Political Campaign Process- 2006 Legislative Interim.

2011: The governor signed HB 2973, known as the Citizen Participation Act or Anti-SLAPP legislation, which is an acronym for Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation. The new law places burdens on lawyers who want to file lawsuits on behalf of public figures or institutions in order to discourage people from investigating or complaining about the public figures. Other bills supported by the League that became law include HB 336, requiring the posting on the internet of political contributions and expenditures of public school board trustees in larger school districts. HB 2439 requires state agencies with more than 1500 employees to allow employees to submit suggestions for cost efficiencies on their website; HB 2460 makes public retirement systems subject to the Texas Public Information Act; HB 2017 requires advisory committee meetings of the Texas Dept. of Motor Vehicles to be publicly accessible; SB 227 requires the Texas Medical Board to make public any remedial plans created to resolve complaints about physicians.

Explanation and History + Recorded Votes Until 2007, Texas was the largest of the ten states that did not require that votes be routinely recorded by legislators' names. About half of the votes taken were as "voice vote"; all those in favor say aye, opposed nay. Legislators must request a recorded vote by roll call in the Senate and by electronic means in the House. Records of votes are published in the Texas Journal and are difficult to access by even competent computer users. The participation of citizens in the democratic process was hindered by the unavailability of voting records of their individual representatives.

2003: In April, the Dallas Morning News began a media campaign to inform the public of when and how votes are recorded and not recorded. A Recorded Votes Committee was approved at the state level in August, 2003. During the special session of the Legislature in the summer of 2003, Senator John Carona of Dallas introduced legislation to record non-ceremonial votes. The efforts of the Recorded Votes Committee resulted in an action motion passed overwhelmingly at the 2004 LWV-TX Convention in support of the constitutional amendment noted above. Throughout 2004-2005, advocacy efforts were undertaken with written articles, educational forums, meetings with candidates for office, and lobbying of state representatives.

2005: League members can take pride in the progress that was made in the 2005 session regarding the need to routinely record all substantive votes. In previous legislative sessions, bills for recorded votes were not even heard in Committees. In 2005 both the House and the Senate changed their rules to make recorded votes easier and more frequent, and to have them posted on the internet. Bills to require routinely recorded votes were heard in Committees in both Houses, and the Senate passed a bill to record all substantive votes. The Senate vote was unanimous! Regrettably, the House leadership persisted in their opposition of the bill and did not allow a vote in the State Affairs Committee, although there were enough votes to pass it. Efforts to make routinely recorded votes and public access to them a reality in Texas will continue in the interim and the 2007 legislative session. It is not unusual for a bill to take three sessions to pass. Our plans for future action include:

  • researching the mechanics of recording votes in other states
  • getting candidates and elected legislators on record regarding recorded votes in the 2006 primaries and general election
  • continued education of our members and the public
  • ongoing collaboration with newspapers and advocacy groups which support routinely recorded votes.

2007: History was made in the 80th Legislature when the House and Senate passed HJR 19 (Branch), a constitutional amendment to the Texas Constitution:

to require that a record vote be taken by a house of legislature on final passage of any bill, other than local bills, of a resolution proposing or ratifying a constitutional amendment, or of any other non-ceremonial resolution, and to provide for public access on the internet to those record votes.

The amendment was supported by the League and approved by Texas voters in the November, 2007 election. This achievement is the culmination of work by a dedicated program chair and other LWV-TX League members who worked tirelessly since 1997 to advocate for recorded voted.

2019.  Transparency and open government, among the pillars which assure that democracy works,
were hot topics this session.  Advocates in all sectors are unabashedly complaining that the once-
robust Texas Public Information Act is hemorrhaging, and the League of Women Voters in Texas
stands firmly with them.

This session the League of Women Voters of Texas is closely aligned with the Freedom of
Information Foundation of Texas and the growing statewide Sunshine Coalition. The
Foundation seeks to inform all about their rights and responsibilities as participants in our
democracy, with the clear objective to protect and preserve the state’s open meetings and open
records laws.  The Sunshine Coalition is working with state and local lawmakers, executives and
other key policymakers to enact new provisions that strengthen Texas’ Sunshine Laws, improve
public oversight and rebuild trust in government operations and decisions. Both are nonprofit
organizations.

Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, and Rep. Giovanni Capriglione, R-Southlake, worked with the League of Women Voters through the Sunshine Coalition and Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas to pass SB 943, contracting transparency legislation that strengthens the Texas Public Information
Act.  In 2015, two Texas Supreme Court rulings had blocked public access to how taxpayer money is spent.
 
Watson and Capriglione also joined to pass SB 944, which allows better access to public records in a government official’s private cell phone or email account. These records are already public by law,
but SB 944 closes a “custodian loophole” and makes them easier to obtain. 

This session’s bi-partisan legislation will obligate governments to reveal the core elements of their
contracts with private companies, including final dollar amount, key contract provisions, and line-
item pricing. Information about public contracts with nonprofits that are performing government
work, such as economic development agencies, will also be more readily available.

A bill we supported by Sen. Watson (SB 1318), which clarified when dates of birth should be made
public, was left pending in committee.  Businesses, journalists, and regular citizens use dates of
birth for many purposes.  Birthdates help to verify identity in the context of credit checks, providing
loans, news reporting, etc.

Unfortunately, in dire contrast to what is discussed above, HB 2730 (Leach), passed and was signed
by the governor despite opposition from groups such as the League and Sunshine Coalition.  In
most cases, the Anti-SLAPP law is a tool for regular Texans facing a David-and-Goliath court battle
they cannot afford and do not deserve.  HB 2730 will remove protections for people who get sued
for defamation, for employers who try to protect their employees, for Texans who get sued by out-
of-state corporations, and for consumers who write online reviews but have unknowingly signed
non-disparagement agreements while clicking through the website.  The law could actually prevent
average citizens from getting a lawyer to defend them because of certain language.