Texas Senate on track to close Boeing-sized public-information loophole

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Texas Senate

The state Senate this week is expected to give final approval to a bill that will roll back a Texas Supreme Court decision that allowed companies doing business with government bodies to keep financial details of those contracts from the public.

The House on Friday gave overwhelming approval to an amended Senate Bill 943, a bipartisan effort of state Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, and state Rep. Giovanni Capriglione, R-Southlake. The Senate last month passed the original version of Watson’s bill by a vote of 29-1.

“I’m proud the Texas Legislature has stood strong for government transparency,” Watson said in a statement provided to The Texas Monitor. “The legislature is finally in a position to restore the public’s right to know.”

The bill restores transparency in negotiations between private companies and the government that were allowed to be kept secret following the ruling in Boeing v. Paxton in June 2015. As The Texas Monitor has reported, dozens of companies have cited that decision in arguing that the release of some proprietary information would put them at a disadvantage when competing for government contracts.

But government transparency advocates have charged the language of the court ruling was so broad as to prevent the public from knowing whether or not a contract made good financial sense.

In one example reported by The Texas Monitor, University of Texas researchers were unable to get financial information to allow them to determine if the state’s multimillion-dollar Texas Enterprise Fund was effectively using millions of taxpayer dollars.

In another case, the City of Harlingen used the ruling to keep taxpayers from knowing how much they would be paying to operate a new convention center. Earlier this year, Denton’s electric utility refused to reveal the details of a $265 million contract for a new power plant. McAllen tried and failed to keep its taxpayers from knowing the city lost almost $600,000 in underwriting an Enrique Iglesias holiday concert in 2015.

The Watson and Capriglione bill blocks companies from claiming proprietary information or trade-secret exceptions to the Texas Public Information Act that would prevent the public from knowing how large amounts of tax money would be deployed or how companies live up to the terms of their government contracts.

The bill also re-establishes the rule that government bodies and not companies can claim a disclosure exception to keep certain financial information secret because of a legitimate competitive-advantage issue in contract bidding.

Companies will also be required to provide governmental bodies with information about their other government contracts, information to which the public would also be privy upon request.

Watson was able to get a version of the Paxton v. Boeing rollback bill through the Senate in the 2017 session but House Government Transparency & Operations Committee chairman Gary Elkins refused to let it be heard. “A lot of people happen to think the Supreme Court got it right,” said Elkins, who lost his bid for a 13th term in November.

This session, Watson and Capriglione enlisted the support of political advocacy and open-government organizations calling themselves the Texas Sunshine Coalition. The bipartisan group includes the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas.

On the House floor Friday, Capriglione applauded his colleagues for their overwhelming support. “SB 943 restores transparency,” he said, “by closing a loophole so big an airline can fly through it.”

Mark Lisheron can be reached at [email protected].

 

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