Texas Governor Greg Abbott has signed two bills into law that strengthen transparency requirements for government agencies and contractors in the state.
The bipartisan and bicameral efforts, Senate Bills 943 and 944, are the culmination of nearly 3 years of work to combat the fallout of a 2015 state Supreme Court decision. In Boeing v. Paxton, justices set a precedent allowing corporations and some government agencies broad privacy protections. Under the ruling, such entities were no longer required to release financial or other records if they could prove it would benefit their competition.
Since 2015, officials have been accused of using the new loophole to hide the mismanagement of taxpayer funds, as when the city of McAllen refused to disclose payment records related to a holiday festival that lost over $770,000.
Democratic Senator Kirk Watson and Republican Representative Giovanni Capriglione co-authored SB 443 (which has been dubbed the “Boeing fix” in reference to the Supreme Court case), which reinstates aspects of the Texas Public Information Act and asserts that contracts between governmental and private entities are public record.
Watson is quoted by the Houston Chronicle as saying “access to public information is essential” if Texans are to hold public officials accountable. Capriglione similarly called it “a strong statement for transparency in government contracting.” However, it will not take effect until the new year.
Also signed June 14th was a separate bill authored by Watson, SB 944, which makes digital communication relating to government business available to the public as well, even if conducted on a personal device. The bill is meant to curb corruption by government officials who “routinely” skirt public records laws.
The bill met fierce opposition from police lobbying groups after Democratic House member Joe Moody added an amendment in May, leading some to question whether the bill would pass. The amendment states that police departments must release records relating to officer-involved civilian deaths, but not the misconduct records of individual officers from their personnel files. After several high-profile deaths in police custody throughout the country, public pressure has been mounting for greater police accountability, but officer advocacy groups say such protests are an attack on public servants.
After several weeks in a Senate subcommittee, the measure passed with Moody’s amendment included and is set to go into effect this September.