• July 16, 2019

TEXAS VIEW: Right to know: Lawmakers rightly void contract secrecy ruling - Odessa American: Texas Opinion

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TEXAS VIEW: Right to know: Lawmakers rightly void contract secrecy ruling

THE POINT: We applaud the legislature for moving the bill along this session.

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Posted: Sunday, June 16, 2019 2:30 am

If Enrique Iglesias ever returns to McAllen for a community event, taxpayers should be able to know what it will cost them.

The Texas Legislature rightly passed a bill that aims to enforce the people’s right to know how their tax dollars are being used. The bill, filed by Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, reverses a 2015 state Supreme Court Ruling that certain details of contracts, including the amount paid for services, can be considered trade secrets and exempted from the Texas Public Information Act. The court’s justification was that release of the information “would give an advantage to a competitor or bidder.”

State Rep. Terry Canales, D-Edinburg, had filed a similar bill in the House of Representatives; it focused on the costs of publicly-funded parades and festivals.

Watson’s bill helps define what contract information is a trade secret and what can be kept confidential.

The background and purpose statement to Committee Substitute Senate Bill 943, co-sponsored by state Sens. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen and Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, says it all:

“It has been the cause of concern that recent decisions from the Texas Supreme Court may have reduced the public’s ability to remain informed with respect to government spending and government contracting and that high-profile contracting scandals have served to compound those concerns,” the document states. “It is suggested that increasing transparency and accountability in contracting are key to avoiding waste, fraud and abuse.”

Once signed into law, it would take effect Jan. 1.

The court ruling, in the 2015 case of Boeing v. Paxton, led to a flood of governmental requests for permission to avoid disclosure of contracts they entered with various vendors. Over the next three years, the Boeing ruling was cited in more than 2,600 state Attorney General Opinions that allowed government secrecy, according to the Texas Sunshine Coalition.

One of those rulings permitted the McAllen City Commission to keep secret the amount that was paid to have popular singer Enrique Iglesias sing at its 2015 Holiday Festival. After it was reported that the festival had lost money, the city refused to disclose how much it had spent. State Attorney General Ken Paxton cited the Boeing case in allowing the city to keep the information secret.

The egregious Iglesias ruling quickly became the statewide cause celebre, which opponents cited to highlight the court’s error.

Canales and other lawmakers tried to correct that error during the 2017 Legislative Session, but their bill was killed in a procedural move.

We applaud the legislature for moving the bill along this session, and not forcing state taxpayers to endure another two years of not knowing what their local officials are doing with their tax money. Gov. Greg Abbott, himself a former attorney general, is well aware of the state’s history of championing government openness and accountability — which has been compromised in recent years. We trust he will honor that history and sign the bill into law forthwith.

Odessa, TX

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