Featured: Kevin Roberts, Ph.D, Executive Director, Texas Public Policy Foundation, on Thursday, March 21, 2019 during the organization’s 2019 Houston Awards Dinner. The Texas Public Policy Foundation is among a diverse coalition of statewide groups which have endorsed House Bill 81 by Rep. Terry Canales, D-Edinburg, which would prevent governments in Texas from keeping secret how much they pay for entertainment events, such as parades and concerts.
Photograph Courtesy TEXAS PUBLIC POLICY FOUNDATION
On 147-0 vote, Texas House approves bill by Rep. Canales to prevent governments from keeping secret how much they pay for entertainment
On a 147-0 vote, the Texas House of Representatives on Wednesday, March 20, 2019, gave vital preliminary support for legislation authored 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.
The next day – on Thursday, March 21, 2019 – House Bill 81 by Canales, who serves as Chair of the House Committee on Transportation, received final House approval on – also without any opposition – and that measure is on the way to the Texas Senate, where Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen, will be the sponsor of Canales’ bill.
The author of a bill is the legislator who files a bill and guides it through the legislative process (also called the primary author). The sponsor of a bill is the legislator who guides a bill through the legislative process after the bill has passed the originating chamber. The sponsor is a member of the opposite chamber of the one in which the bill was filed.
“This bill is about freedom and transparency, members,” Canales summarized the intention of his legislation from the front microphone in the House chamber.
Kelley Shannon, Executive Director of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, applauded the bill, according to the Texas Tribune.
“Taxpayers have an absolute right to see how their money is spent, whether on small projects or large ones,” Shannon said. “This, along with other transparency proposals at the Capitol, will help repair and strengthen the Texas Public Information Act.”
According to the bill analysis by the House Research Organization, which is the research arm of the Texas House of Representatives, HB 81 – as unanimously approved, 13-0, by the House Committee on State Affairs on Wednesday, March 6, 2019 – specifically deals with “information related to a governmental body’s receipt or expenditure of funds in connection with a publicly funded entertainment event that was open to the public.”
The HRO bill analysis continued, noting that “contracts related to such events would be prohibited from including any provision preventing the disclosure of this information, and any such provision would be void. This bill would take immediate effect if finally passed by a two-thirds record vote of the membership of each house. Otherwise, it would take effect September 1, 2019, and would apply only to requests for information received and contracts entered into or renewed on or after that date.”
Supporters of HB 81 believe that the Canales’ legislation “would improve the transparency and accountability of local governments by removing a loophole in the Public Information Act. Current law has been interpreted to except from disclosure information related to a publicly funded entertainment event based on the argument that the information’s release would give an advantage to competitors for certain contracts. Without this information, the public has only a limited ability to monitor how cities and counties are spending taxpayer money. By clarifying that such information is not excepted and is required to be disclosed to the public if requested, HB 81 would eliminate this loophole in the Public Information Act.”
Among the individuals and groups who testified or registered in support of HB 81 when it was first heard on Wednesday, February 27, 2019 before the House Committee on State Affairs were:
Donnis Baggett, Texas Press Association;
Cary Cheshire, Texans for Fiscal Responsibility;
Mark Dorazio, Chairman, Republican Party of Bexar County;
Amanda Gnaedinger, Common Cause Texas;
Ricardo López-Guerra, The Boeing Company;
Cheryl Johnson, Galveston County Tax Office;
Dick Lavine, Center for Public Policy Priorities;
Cyrus Reed, Sierra Club-Lone Star Chapter;
Anna Romero, Texas Association of Broadcasters;
Carlos Sánchez, Texas Monthly, Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas;
Bay Scoggin, Texas Public Interest Research Group;
Adrian Shelley, Public Citizen;
Kelley Shannon, Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas;
Shelby Sterling, Texas Public Policy Foundation;
Scott Swigert, City of Mont Belvieu;
Julie Wheeler, Travis County Commissioners Court; and
Summer Wise, Republican Party of Texas.
Prior to the House action on Wednesday, March 21, 2019, Canales, along with Rep. Briscoe Cain, R-Baytown, changed a key passage in the original version of HB 81 with an amendment that made it clear that such expenditures would also be public information even if taxpayer-funded entertainment events were not open to the public.
“This amendment is also about freedom and transparency, and I would note the author of this bill (Canales) is a joint author of the amendment,” Cain said, and the change also was approved without opposition.
In the House of Representatives, a member authorized by the primary author of a bill or resolution to join in the authorship of the measure and have his or her name shown following the primary author’s name on official printings of the measure, on calendars, and in the journal. The primary author may authorize up to four joint authors.
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.
In the House of Representatives, a joint author is a member authorized by the primary author of a bill or resolution to join in the authorship of the measure and have his or her name shown following the primary author’s name on official printings of the measure, on calendars, and in the journal. The primary author may authorize up to four joint authors.
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, Rep. Steve Toth, R-Conroe, and Rep. Drew Darby, R-San Angelo.
A coauthor is legislator authorized by the primary author of a bill or resolution to join in the authorship of the measure. Both the senate and the house of representatives allow an unlimited number of coauthors on a bill or resolution. A coauthor must be a member of the chamber in which the bill was filed.
The positive actions by the House of Representatives on Wednesday, March 20, 2019 and Thursday, March 21, 2019 follow a Thursday, February 27, 2019 public hearing of that House Committee on State Affairs, 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 during the House committee hearing, referring to the McAllen 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 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.
The House final passage of Canales’ HB 81 on Thursday, March 21, 2019 came less than two weeks after advocates of open government and public information laws in Texas were commemorating “Sunshine Week”, a national initiative spearheaded by the American Society of News Editors to educate the public about the importance of open government and the dangers of excessive and unnecessary secrecy.
A news column, dated March 11, 2019, and authored by Kelley Shannon, Executive Director, Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, provided information about other key legislative measures in Texas that affect free speech and the public’s right to know.
Shannon’s perspectives follow:
We Texans are fiercely independent and like to make our views known. On that, surely, we can agree.
Using our First Amendment right to speak out goes hand in hand with access to public information that helps us understand how our government functions.
Unfortunately, both basic American principles – free speech and the people’s right to know – are under attack in Texas. There’s no better time to urge our state lawmakers to protect these precious freedoms than “Sunshine Week,” March 10-16, a nationwide celebration of open government.
The Texas Sunshine Coalition, a diverse public awareness alliance of more than 15 organizations, has formed over the past year and is working at the Capitol to improve government transparency by repairing the Texas Public Information Act.
Atop the coalition’s agenda is restoring the public’s right to information in government contracts with private businesses and in government agreements with non-profits that do extensive government work.
Two Texas Supreme Court rulings in 2015 blocked off much of this information.
Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, and Rep. Giovanni Capriglione, R-Southlake, filed bipartisan legislation – Senate Bill 943 and House Bill 2189, respectively – to try plug the information black hole that the court created.
Yet another attack on the public’s right to know is the recent Texas Court of Criminal Appeals ruling declaring part of the Texas Open Meetings Act unconstitutionally vague. The ruling dealt with the “walking quorum” provision that bans leaders of a governmental body from meeting in small separate groups to deliberate and undermine the open meetings law. To many of us Texans, the law is not vague at all – it’s clear that the public’s business must be conducted in the open.
But in response to the court, Sen. Watson and Rep. Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, quickly filed Senate Bill 1640 and House Bill 3402 to clarify the law.
Canales and Rep. R.D. “Bobby” Guerra, D-McAllen, are joint authors of HB 3402.
“We simply couldn’t let this ruling go unanswered,” Watson. Phelan added, “Texans want their elected officials to be transparent and allow honest participation in the process. If we do not act this session to address this ruling, we deny them the open government they deserve.”
As for free speech, the good news is we already have a strong state law that protects Texans from meritless lawsuits filed against them in an attempt to bully them into silence and trample their First Amendment rights.
It’s known as the anti-SLAPP statute and protects people posting online reviews, domestic violence victims speaking about abuse, journalists reporting on alleged wrongdoing, law enforcement officers doing their jobs and others who find themselves on the receiving end of a court case meant only to intimidate – a Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation.
The Texas Citizens Participation Act, the formal name of the anti-SLAPP law, allows a defendant to get a nuisance lawsuit dismissed fairly quickly if a judge determines it’s a SLAPP case.
One bill filed in the Legislature, however, House Bill 2730, would drastically weaken the Texas Citizens Participation Act. Alternative positive legislation, House Bill 3547 by Speaker Pro Tempore Joe Moody, D-El Paso, would provide some clarifications in the law, with a narrower approach that preserves free speech protections.
Dozens of organizations have come together through the Protect Free Speech Coalitionto voice support for maintaining the core of the existing anti-SLAPP statute.
In Texas, lawmakers convene in regular session only every two years. Now through May they’re meeting, and this is the time to let legislators know we want them to guard our rights to free speech and public information.
We Texans don’t want to live our lives any other way.
This entry was posted in News, PIA, Texas Legislature, TOMA, Transparency and tagged anti-SLAPP, Sunshine Week, Texas Legislature, Texas Open Meetings Act, Texas Public Information Act by foiftexas. Bookmark the permalink.
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).