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Happy Sunshine Week, Texas.
Founded in 2005 to celebrate and raise awareness of government transparency laws, the week evokes the saying, “Sunlight is the best disinfectant.” It also coincides with the birthday of President James Madison, the Father of our Constitution, who was one of the first and fiercest advocates for open government.
Sunshine Week (March 14-20) is timed perfectly as state legislatures convene across the country to address myriad issues. For champions of open government, legislative sessions are challenging: They not only offer the best opportunities to make meaningful progress, but also present the greatest risk to transparency.
Our instincts as legislators always should be to make transparency the rule with only a few sensible exceptions—never the reverse. Count me among those who subscribe to the words of Patrick Henry, another founding father: “The liberties of a people never were, nor ever will be, secure, when the transactions of their rulers may be concealed from them.”
Government transparency is not simply a buzzword. It is the very essence of a democratic society. How could we trust a government that operated in secret? How would we know our tax dollars were spent wisely? How could we hold our leaders accountable? The answer, of course, is to adopt and enforce laws that force our institutions into the light.
The Texas Open Meetings Act (TOMA) and Texas Public Information Act (TPIA) are the twin pillars of our state’s open government law. Their collective premise is simple: The people have a right to attend meetings of governmental entities, to comment on important issues in their community and to access governmental documents and data.
That mission is challenged continually, not only by the human forces of temptation and corruption, but also by natural disasters and technological change. As governments become more sophisticated, so, too, must our laws.
That is why I collaborated with the Transparent and Accountable Government Coalition to author eight bills this session, Senate Bills (SB) 923-930, which would modernize TOMA and TPIA and respond to specific issues that arose during the COVID-19 pandemic.
SB 923 is omnibus legislation comprising the various proposals in SBs 924-930. If passed, it would be among the most significant updates to TOMA/TPIA in recent memory. Perhaps its timeliest provision is its update of the open meetings statutes pertaining to meetings held remotely. As COVID-19 forced governments to meet online or via conference call, some bodies did not provide adequate technology for their constituents to view or to participate in meetings. Recognizing that remote functions will remain with us post-pandemic, SB 924 would update TOMA to preserve the public’s right to observe its government and petition it directly.
Another pandemic-related item involves nursing homes. Information about the location and severity of outbreaks at such facilities often was kept confidential, even from anxious and desperate family members. SB 930 would rectify this issue. Never again will Texans be left in the dark about the health and safety of their loved ones.
Other bills correct issues with the veracity or usability of public information. SB 926 would ensure birthdates remain in the public record to confirm persons’ identities, and SB 928 would require that public data be provided in a searchable or sortable format.
I’m delighted to partner in this effort with legislative colleagues, sponsors from the House of Representatives and supportive organizations from across the ideological spectrum. Everyone interested in the subject or in our purpose is welcomed to join us.
Open government is not partisan. Rather, it is the watchword of all who cherish democracy and civil liberties. Some may ask, “Why prioritize these bills during a pandemic and after Winter Storm Uri? Doesn’t the Legislature have other things to do?”
We do, but after a year that has shaken our faith in so many of our institutions, what could be more important than ensuring our government can be trusted?