Sen. Zaffirini Files Package Of Open Government Bills

Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, has filed seven bills to improve the Texas Public Information Act and Texas Open Meetings Act.

Senate Bills 924 to 930 filed Tuesday address such issues as deadlines for governmental entities to respond to public records requests and citizen access protections for video or telephone virtual public meetings. All of the measures were also combined in an omnibus bill, SB 923.

“Transparency is essential to preserving democratic governance,” Zaffirini said in a news release. “Texans need to know what happens in the halls of power to hold their leaders accountable. I’m delighted to champion not only these proposals, but also the cause of open government generally.”

Kelley Shannon, executive director of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, said government transparency cannot be sidelined amid the state’s many other pressing needs.

“The pandemic has magnified problems that were occurring in our Texas Public Information Act and Texas Open Meetings Act,” she said. “Loopholes in these important laws need to be closed so that all Texans can stay informed and fully participate in our democracy. This package of legislation by Senator Zaffirini will get Texas on course again in protecting the public’s right to know.”

The senator joins other legislators of both parties in filing open government measures this session, including Rep. Giovanni Capriglione, R-Southlake, and Rep. Joe Moody, D-El Paso, the House speaker pro tempore. Additional transparency bills are expected to be filed in the coming days.

Texas Attorney General’s Office

The Texas Attorney General’s Office includes an open government division and on its website offers tips, answers frequently asked questions and publishes letter rulings on Texas Public Information Act requests. The link to the office’s open government web page is

The office also provides an open government hotline at (512) 478-OPEN (6736) or (877) OPEN-TEX (673-6839).

The Office of the Attorney General has published the latest version of the Public Information Handbook to help citizens navigate Texas open government laws. The handbook examines open government history, cases, statutes and court rulings.

The Attorney General’s Office accepts complaints when it is alleged that a governmental entity has not complied with the Texas Public Information Act. Though the office can take civil action, it cannot decide to prosecute those complaints in criminal court. That power belongs to local prosecutors.

The attorney general does not have enforcement jurisdiction over Texas Open Meetings Act violations. That responsibility lies with district courts and county or district attorneys. However, the Attorney General’s Office does provide training and guidance in Open Meetings Act compliance.

Sunshine Week: Public’s Right To Know Should Be Front And Center, Especially Now, In Texas

With state lawmakers immersed in the COVID-19 pandemic response and Texas’ electricity failures, the public’s access to information must be at the forefront of the Legislature’s actions. Information allows citizens to watch over their government, to speak out and to ask questions.

There’s no better time than Sunshine Week, starting March 14, to emphasize the importance of the people’s right to know. 

The Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas and other open government proponents are taking part in a Sunshine Week online discussion March 18 hosted by the Texas Public Policy Foundation as the Texas legislative session approaches its midway point. Fortunately, lawmakers in both political parties are working to enact timely transparency legislation.

Texas Public Information Act compliance. Throughout the pandemic, many government offices have not responded to open records requests, citing the physical closure of their offices or because they were operating on a “skeleton crew” with staffers working remotely. House Bill 1416 by Rep. Giovanni Capriglione, R-Southlake, and Senate Bill 925 by Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, define business days under the Public Information Act to ensure timely responses by governments.

Furthermore, SB 1225 by Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, and HB 3627 by Rep. Chris Paddie, R-Marshall, clarify existing law pertaining to “catastrophe notices” that governments can file to briefly suspend TPIA responses during a disaster. This legislation adds specifics to the law to prevent abuse.

Enforcement measures requiring governments to respond to public information requestors, even if no responsive records are found, are spelled out in SB 927 by Zaffirini and HB 3015 by Rep. Ana Hernandez, D-Houston. 

Texas Open Meeting Act improvements. Virtual meetings allowed under the Texas Open Meetings Act have worked well for many governments during the pandemic, but in some cases rules for public comment have been unfairly imposed and telephone call-in lines have not been provided to accommodate those without Internet. SB 924 by Zaffirini and HB 2683 by Rep. Terry Canales, D-Edinburg, address these concerns.

Nursing home and assisted living pandemic transparency. Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, chair of the Senate Health and Human Services Committee, filed SB 882 so that nursing home residents and their loved ones can get the information they need about communicable disease outbreaks, including COVID-19. Zaffirini filed a similar bill, SB 930, as did Rep. Mayes Middleton, R-Wallisville, with HB 3306.

Online contracts. Legislation to require more online posting of government contracts would help citizens better track how tax dollars are spent, during a pandemic or any other time. Capriglione filed HB 2913 and Zaffirini filed SB 929 to achieve this goal.

Dates of birth in public records. Access to a birthdate in a government record promotes accuracy. It can aid citizens vetting a candidate for office; journalists identifying a person in a crime report; or banks, credit report companies and employers relying on public record background checks to conduct business. HB 3535 by Rep. Todd Hunter, R-Corpus Christi, and SB 926 by Zaffirini address this important measure.

Searchable-sortable records. When government information is stored in spreadsheets or other electronic formats, a requestor may need the data in that electronic format for searching, sorting and organizing. HB 1810 by Capriglione; SB 928 by Zaffirini; and SB 729 by Sen. Nathan Johnson, D-Dallas, require information to be provided the requested available electronic format.

Law enforcement transparency. House and Senate members are also working to improve access to police records involving in-custody deaths and to body camera and dash camera video. This helps to ensure public accountability. Key bills are HB 2383 by Rep. Joe Moody, D-El Paso and SB 975 by Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas.

This Texas legislative session is an unusual one amid the coronavirus pandemic. But ensuring access to public information is a familiar endeavor and always necessary. 

Now is a crucial time to protect this basic right.

Texas House Committee Approves Two Major Open Government Bills

The Texas House State Affairs Committee unanimously approved two bills Wednesday addressing governments that quit responding to Texas Public Information Acts during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The panel approved House Bill 1416 by Rep. Giovanni Capriglione, R-Southlake, specifying which days are to be counted as business days for purposes of the Public Information Act. Currently, the law doesn’t define TPIA business days. Many governments, citing long-ago attorney general guidance, decided on their own how to calculate business days when the pandemic set in. The legislation next moves to the full House.

Committee members also voted in favor of House Bill 3627 by Chairman Chris Paddie, R-Marshall, which clarifies 2019 legislation allowing governments to file “catastrophe notices” with the attorney general’s office when a disaster prevents them from responding to Public Information Act requests. The notice allows a seven-day halt to TPIA responses. In some situations, a government can file for another seven-day extension but that is the limit. The bill now heads to the full House.

The Texas Public Policy Foundation hosted this online event on March 18, 2021, during Sunshine Week 2021. Click here to watch “Sunshine Week 2021: Regaining Trust in Texas Government.”

The Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas was pleased to participate, along with other transparency advocates

Conservatives optimistic, too

James Quintero

James Quintero is director of the Texas Public Policy Foundation’s Center for Local Governance, which is concerned with issues such as the state’s dependence on property taxes and an “alarming amount of debt” accumulated by cities, counties, and other taxing entities.

Quintero said, “I’m bullish on the prospect of passing significant legislation expanding government transparency.”

“Government secrecy is a bipartisan problem,” he said. “The Texas Public Policy Foundation wants taxpayers to have the ability to see where their tax dollars are going. In the absence of strong transparency requirements it’s impossible to hold our elected officials accountable.”

“I’m very excited to be part of a coalition to reverse course on Texas Supreme Court decisions, Boeing and Greater Houston Partnership,” Quintero said.

The latter case reversed lower court decisions and ruled that the Greater Houston Partnership, a nonprofit corporation that provides economic development services to the City of Houston, was not a “governmental body” under the Texas Public Information Act because it is not wholly or partially sustained by public funds.

“I’m not just blowing smoke,” Quintero said. “I think we have an excellent chance of passage. It’s been good to see people who we don’t normally agree with come out of the woodwork and be on same page with us on how things ought to work.”

But it’s not going to be a cake walk.

“I think we are going to see a lot of fierce opposition on these issues, but primarily behind closed doors, because it’s hard to go out and argue in public setting that taxpayers shouldn’t know how their money is being spent.

“In the last session, opponents used back-channel methods to stall and defeat our legislation,” Quintero said. “But our coalition has learned a few good lessons about tactics of the other side and we’re coming in this session more prepared to handle these tactics.”