Featured: Carlos Sánchez, News & Politics Editor for Texas Monthly magazine, and former Executive Editor, The Monitor newspaper in McAllen, on Saturday, December 9, 2017, at a gathering at the Embassy Suites in McAllen, sponsored by Congressman Vicente González, D-McAllen, to thank González’ supporters and to receive contributions of Christmas presents for needy children in deep South Texas.
Photograph By MARK MONTEMAYOR
Carlos Sánchez, News & Politics Editor for Texas Monthly magazine, says Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas endorses government transparency legislation authored by Rep. Canales
By DAVID A. DÍAZ
A bill filed by Rep. Terry Canales, D-Edinburg, that would prevent any state, county, or local government from keeping secret the amount of taxpayer funds used to pay for entertainment events, such as parades and concerts, on Wednesday, April 6, 2019, was unanimously approved by the House Committee on State Affairs.
The measure now awaits possible scheduling for a vote by the full House of Representatives.
The positive action follows a Thursday, February 27, 2019 public hearing of that House legislative panel, which drew favorable reactions from state lawmakers, news media leaders, and open government advocates.
“My bill (House Bill 81) is aimed at addressing an issue that actually occurred in a city of which I represent a portion,” said Canales, referring to the McAllen’s city government. “This city hosted a holiday concert parade (in December 2015) featuring an international artist. A few weeks after the event, it came out the the city had not just lost thousands, but hundreds of thousands of dollars from this event.”
The House District 40 state lawmaker, who also serves as Chair, House Committee on Transportation, made his remarks before the House Committee on State Affairs during that legislative panel’s February 27, 2019 public meeting at the State Capitol.
Throughout his public career, Canales has made protecting and promoting government transparency a hallmark of his legislative agenda, so much so that on Thursday, September 20, 2018, Canales was named a Transparency Champion by the Texas Press Association for his record of supporting the Texas Open Meetings Act and the Texas Public Information Act.
In general, openness, accountability, and honesty define government transparency. In a free society, transparency is government’s obligation to share information with citizens. It is at the heart of how citizens hold their public officials accountable.
While Canales is the primary author of HB 81, he has key House members already publicly endorsing the legislation.
Serving as joint authors for Canales’ HB 81 are Rep. Dale Phelan, R-Orange, Chair, House Committee on State Affairs; Rep. Dustin Burrows, R-Lubbock, Chair of the House Committee on Ways and Means; Rep. Poncho Nevárez, D-Eagle Pass, Chair of the House Committee on Homeland Security and Public Safety; and Rep. Giovanni Capriglione, R-Southlake, Chair of the Subcommittee on Infrastructure, Resiliency and Invest, House Committee on Appropriations.
Rep. R.D. “Bobby” Guerra, D-McAllen, also a member of the House Committee on State Affairs, is coauthor of the measure, as well as Rep. Mayes Middleton, R-Galveston.
An author of a bill is the legislator who files a bill and guides it through the legislative process (also called the primary author). The Senate allows multiple primary authors for each bill or resolution. The House of Representatives allows only one primary author, the house member whose signature appears on the original measure and on the copies filed with the chief clerk. Both chambers also have coauthors, and the House of Representatives has joint authors.
The controversy over the holiday parade in McAllen began when South Texas media outlets were denied information about how much the city government paid pop superstar Enrique Iglesias to perform a concert at the McAllen Veterans Memorial Stadium on Saturday, December 5, 2015.
The singer’s paid appearance was a featured part of the city government’s “McAllen Holiday Parade and Concert featuring Enrique Iglesias”. The parade was free and open to the public, but paid tickets for the outdoor concert by Iglesias were required for admittance, and those ticket prices ran from $15 to $125 apiece.
Local media requested the documents, contracts, and agreements relating to the public funds paid to Enriquez, but the city appealed the requests to the Texas Attorney General, and based on a Texas Supreme Court ruling during the summer of 2015, the information was never released, Canales testified before the House Committee on State Affairs on Thursday, February 27, 2019.
“So, my bill simply states that ‘any information relating to the expenditures of public funds on a parade, a concert, or other event open to the public, paid for in whole or in part by public funds, has to be privy to open records.’ HB 81 also keeps government entities from including provisions in their contracts to prohibit that disclosure,” Canales said. “My intent is not to also allow allow access to other trade secrets, that’s not what we are trying to get at for event promoters, such as how they do their ticketing process or security plans. It’s simply how much our cities are paying for putting on concerts or parades.”
House Bill 81, as originally filed by Canales, would amend Section 552.104 of the Government Code to prevent information subject to Section 552.022 of the Government Code that relates to the expenditure of public or other funds by a governmental body for a parade, concert, or other entertainment event open to the general public from being withheld under Section 552.104, according to the bill analysis by the House Committee on State Affairs. It also bars persons, including governmental bodies, from including contract provisions that would prohibit disclosure of this type of information and makes such provisions void.
The Office of the Attorney General has indicated there would be no significant fiscal impact and anticipates any additional work resulting from the passage of this bill could reasonably be absorbed within current resources. Cities report that while the bill will most likely have no significant fiscal implication, if cities must add additional accounts or track the cost of relatively small dollar events separately, then costs might become more significant.
“I believe it is important that I raise awareness here at the Texas Capitol that government entities can keep secret their expenditures for entertainment events, like parades or concerts,” Canales continued. “This shows exactly how ridiculous this (existing) law has become.”
Carlos Sánchez, News & Politics Editor for Texas Monthly magazine
Carlos Sánchez, News & Politics Editor for Texas Monthly magazine, and former Executive Editor, The Monitor newspaper, testified on Thursday, February 27, 2019 in support of HB 81 as a member of the Board of Directors for the Texas Freedom of Information, which “works to encourage a greater appreciation, knowledge and understanding of the First Amendment and helps to ensure that the public’s business is conducted in public. Since its formation in 1978, the Foundation has helped citizens access government meetings and documents.”
His comments before the House Committee on State Affairs closely followed his written testimony, which he submitted to Canales.
Sánchez’ prepared remarks, of which his live testimony was closely based, follow:
“Prior to my joining Texas Monthly, I was the Executive Editor of The Monitor newspaper in McAllen, which is South Texas’ largest daily newspaper. I was in that role in 2015 when the City of McAllen put on its second McAllen Holiday Parade — which is now being billed as the largest illuminated holiday and helium balloon parade in Texas.
“Because this was still a new venture by the city, there was tremendous interest in attendance, cost to taxpayers and overall community support. This interest only grew when the city announced that year that it had contracted with singer Enrique Iglesias to perform a concert prior to the parade. Three months after the concert, the city announced that it had lost more than $765,000 as host of the parade and two other community events held in conjunction with the parade.
“As the newspaper dug deeper into a breakdown of the costs, it learned that the city had signed a nondisclosure agreement with the Iglesias management company and that its general counsel was advising the city not to disclose how much taxpayers paid for this concert. At the same meeting at which these losses were announced, city officials declared that they were out of the promotions business.
“To our astonishment, the Office of the Attorney General upheld the city’s right not to disclose how much it paid the entertainer, citing the Boeing vs. Port of San Antonio exception, despite the public declaration by city officials that they were out of the promotions business and, therefore, competitive bidding concerns seemed moot.
“Community outrage was strong and city officials privately told me that they wished they could release the information, but they were certain they would face suit for violating the nondisclosure agreement. The Enrique Iglesias Christmas concert soon emerged as the poster boy for the unintended consequences of the Boeing ruling.
“HB 81 represents a simple, nine-line fix to our state’s open records law and would prevent governmental entities from entering into nondisclosure agreements for entertainment purposes in the future. And it would force these bodies to tell taxpayers how much tax money is being used for entertainment purposes. For that reason, I would strongly urge passage of HB 81.”
Shelby Sterling, J.D., Policy Analyst for the Texas Public Policy Foundation
Shelby Sterling, J.D., Policy Analyst for the Texas Public Policy Foundation, also testified in support of Canales’ HB 81 on Thursday, February 27, 2019.
According to its website, “The Texas Public Policy Foundation is a 501(c)3 non-profit, non-partisan research institute. The Foundation’s mission is to promote and defend liberty, personal responsibility, and free enterprise in Texas and the nation by educating and affecting policymakers and the Texas public policy debate with academically sound research and outreach. Funded by thousands of individuals, foundations, and corporations, the Foundation does not accept government funds or contributions to influence the outcomes of its research.”
Sterling’s testimony follows:
“I am here to testify in support of this bill. Texas has long been a leader in government financial transparency. However, that window has slowly been closing, and as Rep. Canales just mentioned, the court rulings in 2015 and other legislation over time.
“Following these actions, the public information act for Texas has weakened. I believe HB 81 is one step towards improving the Texas Public Information Act. As it stands, the Texas Public Information Act guarantees access to public information, subject to certain exceptions.
“Trying to get access to such information is rather difficult. Taxpayers don’t honestly always know where their tax dollars are going. I believe passing HB 81 will be one step towards allowing them to being able to know.
“The biggest example for why we need this bill passed is what happened in the City of McAllen in 2015. The City of McAllen decided to try something new for their holiday festivities. Instead of just having food and games and see all the children run around the Christmas trees, they decided to also invite Enrique Iglesias for a one-hour concert.
“The importance of this is the fact the city never disclosed how much they paid for Enrique Iglesias to come and perform. Despite all requests for public information by news media outlets, the city continued to refuse such disclosure, claiming that it would put the city at a competitive disadvantage in future contract negotiations.
“To this day, the city taxpayers in McAllen do not know how much the city decided to pay Enrique Iglesias for his performance. They may never know. But with this bill passage, other cities throughout the state won’t be able to do the same, and taxpayers will be able to know how much a city decides to pay for entertainment, parades and festivities.
“The preamble to the Texas Public Information Act speaks clearly to the importance of transparency as part of our fundamental philosophy of the government. As it states, each person is entitled, unless otherwise expressly provided by law, at all times to complete information about the affairs of government and the official actions of public officials.
“I believe the taxpayers have the right to know what their cities and local governments are paying, are using, with their tax dollars. With that, we believe that it is the intent of the Texas Public Information Act to slowly start to open this window of open transparency again, and return it to what it once was.”
In concluding the combined testimonies for HB 81, Canales reflected, “It’s pretty simple, I would say.
“Put yourself in my shoes, put yourself in this City of McAllen’s shoes, and put yourself in the residents of that city, and say your city holds an event, they don’t have to tell you what they spend with your tax dollars?” Canales speculated. “If you think that’s OK, well, then this isn’t the bill for you.”
Referring to the ideal known as “Sunshine is the best disinfectant”, which means that if every government spending bill and decision is made in the open, then corruption should be lessened, Canales continued his appeal for the committee’s legislative support for HB 81.
“But if you stand for public transparency, accountability, if you believe sunshine is the best disinfectant, then this is the bill for you,” he promised.
Glossary of Legislative Terms
A “bill” is a type of legislative measure that requires passage by both chambers of the legislature and action by the governor in order to become effective.
A bill is the primary means used to create and change the laws of the state.
“Bill” types include Senate and House of Representatives bills, Senate and House Joint Resolutions, Senate and House Concurrent Resolutions, and Senate and House resolutions.
The term “filed” is used to refer to a measure that has been introduced into the legislative process and given a number. Members of the House of Representatives file bills with the Chief Clerk of the House of Representatives. Senators file bills with the Secretary of the Senate.
Rep. Terry Canales, D-Edinburg, who is the Chair of the House Committee on Transportation, represents House District 40 in Hidalgo County, which includes portions or all of Edinburg, Elsa, Faysville, La Blanca, Linn, Lópezville, McAllen, Pharr and Weslaco. He may be reached at his House District Office in Edinburg at (956) 383-0860 or at the Capitol at (512) 463-0426. For more on this and other Texas legislative news stories which affect the Rio Grande Valley metropolitan region, please log on to Titans of the Texas Legislature (TitansoftheTexasLegislature.com).