Bills target secret contracts, government partnerships
Published 6:41 pm Friday, January 27, 2017
By Kenric Ward
Untold millions of Texas tax dollars are being spent in bureaucratic darkness after two Supreme Court rulings blew holes in the state’s public-records law.
In the first case, Boeing vs. Paxton, the Texas Supreme Court bought the company’s argument that disclosing its government contract at Kelly Air Force Base would be a “competitive disadvantage.”
In the second case, Greater Houston Partnership vs. Paxton, the high court ruled that the quasi-government agency did not have to disclose its finances — even though it handled economic development for the city and received public funding.
The precedent-setting decisions enable public officials and their partners to dodge disclosure requirements that had long been a staple of Texas law.
In Dallas, the State Fair of Texas occupies city space and uses city services, but doesn’t want anyone seeing its financials. The Fair sued to quash records requests while its partners at City Hall remained mum.
In San Antonio, city officials created the Hemisphere Park Area Redevelopment Corp., effectively restricting public access to financial dealings at the historic downtown park.
The city of McAllen refused to say how much it paid Enrique Iglesias to perform at a city-sponsored concert that lost nearly $600,000. McAllen officials said releasing the amount paid to the Latin pop star would put the city at a competitive disadvantage in negotiating with other artists and possibly benefiting nearby venues in Pharr and Hidalgo.
Increasingly, Texas school districts and municipalities are shielding financial details in contracts that range from executive-search firms to transportation vendors such as Uber.
A bipartisan effort is under way at the Legislature to plug the loopholes created by the state’s top court.
Rep. Giovanni Capriglione, R-Southlake, and Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, introduced HB 792 and SB 407 to counter the Boeing contract decision and HB 793 and SB 408 to address public-private partnerships.
“You can’t do government activity wrapped in the cloak of a private entity so that you avoid open access to records and access to open government,” Watson told the Dallas Morning News.
As long as the Supreme Court decisions go unchecked, government accountability groups, including the Texas Press Association, warn that public officials will outsource more projects, sign more secret contracts and hide more tax dollars.
“We’re trying to get back to where the Texas Public Information Act is one of the strongest in the country,” said Kelley Shannon, executive director of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas.
Kenric Ward writes for the Texas Bureau of Watchdog.org. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @Kenricward.