Lawmaker Wants Public Info Restricted to Texans

AUSTIN, Texas (CN) — A Republican lawmaker has proposed a bill that would let Texas ignore public information requests from people who are not permanent residents of the state.

The Texas Public Information Act entitles any person, regardless of citizenship or residency, to obtain information about government agencies, public officials and government employees.

“The people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know,” the act states. “The people insist on remaining informed so that they may retain control over the instruments they have created.”

But state House Rep. Mike Schofield, R-Katy, submitted an amendment that would allow Texas to refused to comply with public information requests from people and organizations outside the state.

Schofield did not respond to requests for comment on his bill, H.B. 526. He filed a similar bill during the last legislative session, in 2015, when he told the Dallas Morning News that the Texas Public Information Act, “has no guts.”

“This is a simple bill to say, ‘Texas government is responsive to Texans,’” Schofield told the newspaper.

H.B. 526, would require government employees to ask a person requesting information for the physical address of their Texas residence. If the requestor lives out-of-state, the request “may” be accepted, but the government is not required to respond.

If Schofield’s bill passes, Texas will be one of only seven states with a residency requirement for public information requests, joining Tennessee, Arkansas, Delaware, Georgia, New Jersey and Virginia.

A unanimous U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2013, in McBurney v. Young, that a state can limit access to public records to state residents.

Justice Samuel Alito wrote that a state’s freedom of information law “represents a mechanism by which those who ultimately hold sovereign power … may obtain an accounting from the public official to whom they delegate the exercise of that power.”

It’s only effect on out-of-staters, Alito said, is “incidental.”

But Kelley Shannon, executive director of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, said the residency requirement would have a significant impact on out-of-staters who need information from Texas government agencies.

“Maybe you move out of state but you own property here so you need to keep up with what’s going on with local taxing entities and local governments,” Shannon said. “Maybe you live out of state but you care for elderly parents or other relatives here, so you kind of watch out for their interests, yet you’re an out of state resident.”

Shannon said it would also impede research institutes and think tanks that do state-by-state surveys of information, and affect businesses that might want to relocate to the state, but can’t get information they need to make a decision.

Proponents might argue they are trying to keep government agencies from being overloaded with information requests, Shannon said, but the bill would actually create more work for government employees, who would have to verify residences.

If Schofield’s bill passes, there are potential work-arounds. A Texas resident could, for instance, set up a business which makes public information requests for out-of-staters.

Given such loopholes, Shannon asked: “Why make the law more complicated for everybody?

“Keep it straightforward, keep it simple, try to keep costs down and get a free flow of information. We’re always urging that governments put more information online; then that reduces the number of public information act requests they have to deal with.”

Shannon said she does not believe Schofield’s bill will pass.

“I would think that most legislators would look at it in a common sense way and realize we don’t need this law,” she said.

Other bills proposed this session are aiming to strengthen access to public information.

At a Senate Business and Commerce Committee hearing Tuesday, state Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, presented bills that would undo two Texas Supreme Court decisions in 2015 that cut off public access to certain records.

The Boeing v. Paxton ruling made many government contracts with private businesses off-limits to the public, and the Greater Houston Partnership v. Paxton ruling allows taxpayer money to be given to nonprofits, outside the public view.

At the Tuesday hearing, Watson said taxpayers should be allowed to know how their money is spent.

Shannon said the Texas Public Information Act has been considered one of the strongest public information laws in the country, but these court rulings significantly weakened it.

“If we get these bills passed, we may be able to go back to saying we have one of the strongest, but right now it’s in sad shape,” Shannon said.