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HB 4181: An Assault on the Public’s Right to Know

Advocacy, TLA News

Is the Legislature trying to hide something? Last minute amendments to HB 4181 by Rep. Charlie Geren (R-Fort Worth) would make sweeping changes to how official records of the Texas Legislature are handled and make many more records off-limits to the public.

With no public hearing or testimony, HB 4181 was set for a floor vote Wednesday, May 1, and passed by the full House on Friday, May 3. The bill would exempt Legislative Branch records from the statutory definition of a “state record,” would transfer much of the authority of managing the records from the Texas State Library & Archives Commission to the Legislative Reference Library, and would add several new areas of exemption for legislative records from public access under the Open Records Act.

For more than 100 years, the Texas State Library & Archives Commission has been mandated by state law to receive, manage and preserve legislative archival records, and ensure public access to an unbroken public record of the actions of government. This bill specifically removes records of the legislature and the lieutenant governor from that mandate. Further, the bill gives members of the legislature complete control over legislative records stored in any repository in the state, and the ability to remove materials from the public record for any period of time. The bill would significantly and permanently compromise the integrity of the Legislature’s public record, and puts several new barriers to public access in place.

For example, the bill would make communications in any form or media between any Legislative staff member and the Legislative Council off limits from public access and review. Currently, that privilege is only extended to members’ communications, not all staff. This new provision would extend to any correspondence regarding the drafting of legislation, a key and important area of research for the public and press. The bill goes as far as to redefine “state records” to specifically exclude legislative records. If legislative records are not considered state records, would they be subject to the Open Records Act?

These changes were added as a committee substitute to a bill that was considered on the House floor during a regular session without public testimony. We don’t know why such important and far-reaching changes to public access to information were made so quickly and without any public discussion.  Whoever added these provisions, for whatever reason, the choice to do so behind the scenes only reinforces the perception that the Legislature does not want the public to have the right to access legislative records as they have for the past 140 years.

The Texas Library Association believes the public has the right to know what its government and elected officials are doing with the least interference possible. We ask the Legislature to allow the Texas State Library & Archives Commission to continue to do its job of safeguarding – and freely and openly making publicly available- all records of state government, including those of the Texas Legislature and Lieutenant Governor.

The bill now goes to the Texas Senate. Contact your Texas Senator to express your concerns about this bill. Find out who represents you