COMMENTARY: The importance of free press and transparency in government

Every year the American press celebrates Sunshine Week, which is a time to not only inform the public but also stress the importance of open government and the dangers of government secrecy. This year, after a seemingly long hiatus, Texas finally has something to celebrate regarding transparency and open government, and I am proud to have been leading many of these fights alongside the Texas Press Association. I am looking forward to continuing to champion these issues and fight for every Texan’s right to know.

In 2015, two controversial decisions came down from the Texas Supreme Court that dramatically limited the public’s access to information on state and local contracting with private, for-profit entities.

As a result, these contracts were often confidential and inaccessible to the public. During the 86th legislative session in 2019 and after several years of effort, we fixed these huge loopholes in the Public Information Act when we successfully passed Senate Bill 943, which I joint-authored. SB 943 significantly improved the transparency and accountability of state and local governments in these private contracts by allowing taxpayers to obtain important information within these documents about how their tax dollars are being spent.

One recent and highly publicized example of the problems around these Supreme Court rulings was regarding the Teacher Retirement System, which abused these loopholes to conceal the true cost of its new office space in Austin. Once Senate Bill 943 went into effect at the beginning of 2020, we learned that TRS had rented office space in downtown Austin at a rate of more than $326,000 a month or $3.9 million annually. Lawmakers and pension-members were justifiably angry about the high cost, but also as to why a state agency would attempt to keep its contracts secretive in the first place. Undoubtedly, this is a clear example that government transparency allows for true accountability.

In 2015, a Texas city refused to disclose the amount of taxpayer dollars it spent on a musical performer to sing at a city event. In response, I authored and passed House Bill 81 to close yet another loophole in the law and increase the public’s ability to monitor how cities and counties are spending taxpayer money on publicly funded entertainment events. There is no just reason to keep a government entity’s entertainment expenses secret.

This past legislative session, I also authored and successfully passed House Bill 2840 in response to concerns that city councils, school boards and other local governmental entities were not allowing the public to testify at open meetings until after the governmental body had voted on and passed the agenda items. In some instances, these governmental bodies were completely barring the public from having their voices heard. The new law corrects this problem and allows any member of the public the ability to speak at an open meeting before a governmental body prior to or during the consideration of an agenda item. The democratic process is made stronger when we give all citizens the ability to be a part of it.

Rep. Terry Canales, D-Edinburg, represents House District 40 in Hidalgo County, which includes portions or all of Edinburg, Elsa, Faysville, La Blanca, Linn, Lópezville, McAllen, Pharr and Weslaco. He may be reached at his House District Office in Edinburg at (956) 383-0860 or at the Capitol at (512) 463-0426.