Texas is lagging behind other states in open, transparent government laws and 6 Investigates traveled to Austin to find out why.
The answer? There is no one answer. But, for many open government advocates, there is a key:
It’s the “Boeing Decision,” a Texas Supreme Court ruling that says private businesses doing business with public entities (e.g., taxpayer-funded entities) can withhold key financial information about those dealings, if releasing it puts the business at a competitive disadvantage.
Since then, cities and other government agencies have been using it to block thousands of requests for information from interested parties, concerning publicly-funded dealings with private businesses.
“There have been over 2,700 rulings so far by the (Texas Attorney General) since the Boeing decision saying part or all of a contract is blocked from the public,” says Kelley Shannon, Executive Director of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas.
Shannon says the cornerstone of Texas open government and information laws – which date back to the 1970s – is that all public information is presumed to belong to the public, unless the agency or individual that has the information can make a case to withhold it.
Shannon says for years, Texas open government laws set the example for other states.
Post-Boeing, things have changed.
“I go to conferences around the country, hear about what is going on in other states, and people are aghast ant what has happened in Texas, where we can’t even see the basics of how taxpayer money is being spent in some cases.”
Now, state lawmakers like Rep. Todd Hunter (R-Corpus Christi) are working to restore what they say are attacks on open government from special interest groups.
Hunter, specifically, filed HB 1700, which would require those in possession of public information on private devices like cell phones and computer servers, to turn it over if requested by an interested party. Up to now, that information has fallen through a loophole in the law, to the detriment of the public’s right to know, Hunter tells 6 Investigates.
“My view is, you pay taxpayer money – you should be getting taxpayer information,” Hunter says.
The longtime lawmaker also filed legislation requiring government agencies to release date-of-birth information critical to vetting – and verifying – individuals who come under public scrutiny.
As for the Boeing decision – lawmakers are working on a plan to require more transparency in public-private contracts, most notably