Why Transparency in Government Matters

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The Texas Legislature is back in session. For those of us who think transparency in government is critical to a functioning democracy, that means trying to block attempts to create even more loopholes in the freedom of information laws. Every session, a bevy of bills are filed to make it more difficult for the public to obtain information kept by the folks whose paychecks we fund. FOI advocates work tirelessly throughout the session to improve bad ol’ bills or block them altogether. They also work with legislators who understand the importance of government transparency. Fortunately, there are several who fall into that camp on

both sides of the aisle.

This session, I am not able to contribute to the effort because of my workload. It is the first session in nearly two decades in which I was not able to help in some small way — reading bills, serving on the legislative committee, occasionally even testifying in Austin. But there is a strong group of folks involved, and I am deeply appreciative of their efforts.

Two of the groups closely involved in transparency efforts are the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas and the Texas Press Association, organizations with which I have been associated for many years. Both are members of the newly formed, non-partisan Texas Sunshine Coalition. Other members include Texas Association of Broadc

asters, League of Women Voters, Texas Public Policy Foundation and Common Cause. (A complete list can be found at txsunshine.org.) It is exciting to see more than a dozen groups band together irrespective of political philosophy to fight for transparency, which has been under constant attack for years.

The public’s right to know is not a liberal or conservative issue. For example, a number of loopholes have obscured the procurement process used by government to obtain goods and services. As the Texas Sunshine Coalition website points out, “opaque procurement practices” can increase project costs by up to 50 percent. That’s our money, folks.

Two court rulings since 2015 have eviscerated taxpayers’ right to know where their money is going. In Boeing Co. v. Paxton, the Texas Supreme Court ruled that Boeing could withhold certain information in an agreement between Boeing and the Port Authority of San Antonio because the company claimed it would tip off competitors if made public. Since then, more than 2,600 Texas attorney general opinions have cited Boeing v. Paxton in allowing government bodies to withhold public information.

As a result, details of contracts made by government bodies with companies — for taxis, prison supplies, software, police body cams, municipal electrical contracts and many others — are being withheld. The public has no idea if the contracts are aboveboard, that the lowest, best-qualified bidder won, or a myriad of other details. Remember, it is our money these governments are using.

Another egregious ruling by the Texas Supreme Court allows quasi-government bodies to hide their actions. The Greater Houston Partnership v. Paxton decision means chambers of commerce and other organizations that receive government funds to provide services, such as economic development, are not considered public bodies — even though they are spending our money.

Once again in the session, as in 2017, the Texas Sunshine Coalition and sympathetic lawmakers, such as state Rep. Giovanni Capriglione, R-Southlake, and state Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, will try to reverse these two rulings. It will be an uphill battle as always.

It is important to remember that transparency in government, access to public records, and being able to attend public meetings matter not just to journalists. The public information and public meeting laws are for all of us. Members of the public, especially including business interests, file the majority of open-record requests.

If you care about transparency, I suggest you support the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas (foift.org) with a donation, or contact the Texas Sunshine Coalition (txsunshine.org) if you are having difficulty obtaining public information. Remember, public information belongs to all of us.

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