The Dallas Morning News. March 10, 2013.
Fighting for transparency in Texas government
There's good news and threatening news out of the bill hopper in Austin for yesterday's kickoff of Sunshine Week, the national observance of the public's right to know what goes on within government.
On the upside, state lawmakers are finding new ways to provide a view into the inner workings of government. But then there are some insidious ideas that would do the reverse. A sampling:
The beauty of accessible online databases has been discovered by multiple lawmakers. One, Sen. Ken Paxton, R-McKinney, wants the state comptroller's website to keep a searchable database detailing the taxes collected and debt incurred by every taxing district. Paxton's bill (SB 843) would create a taxpayer-friendly portal. And more: A bill by Rep. Linda Harper-Brown, R-Irving, (HB 1487) would require the comptroller's website to include a searchable function on the purposes of grants awarded by the state.
Many government agencies now voluntarily keep online checkbooks showing the purpose and recipient of each check. A bill by Rep. Bill Zedler, R-Arlington, (HB 284) would make them mandatory for school districts. A similar bill by Rep. Pat Fallon, R-Frisco, (HB 1529) would impose the requirement on districts of 50,000-plus population.
Fallon also filed a bill (HB 889) requiring school districts and cities of at least 50,000 to webcast their meetings and archive the recordings. This newspaper likes that as much as a bill by Rep. Dan Branch, R-Dallas, (HB 31) to put the same requirement on university system boards. It makes government accessible.
A snappy moniker makes a good bill better, and Sen. Craig Estes, R-Wichita Falls, has both with his Freedom to Film Act (SB 897). Noting the disturbing trend of police officers who harass citizens who record them on public property with camera phones, Estes said his bill would offer protection for a perfectly legal activity.
Some of the stinkers would shield the identity and activities of law enforcement officers when it might not be in the public's interest.
A bill by Sen. Glenn Hegar, R-Katy, (SB 988) would blow a big hole in the Public Information Act. It would allow a police agency to withhold, barring a court order, "records of telephone calls, text messages, emails or other electronic communications to which a peace officer is a party."
The very point of the act is to make sure the public has a clear view of how public officials carry out their duties, and this overbroad bill mocks that intent.
A bill by Rep. Allen Fletcher, R-Tomball, (HB 1632) would make an officer's date of birth confidential information, which could prevent proper identification of someone involved in a highly public event.
One fundamental in defending transparency is that you don't leave it to government to tell government's story. The pitfalls are as obvious as the fox's mayhem in the henhouse.
And so it's obvious why defenders of transparency are digging in against repeat efforts in the Legislature to sweep aside provisions in law requiring local governments to put certain public notices in newspapers, from bid solicitations to meetings on tax rates.
Make no mistake: The effort is the handiwork of government lobbyists. This session, one offending bill is being carried by freshman Rep. Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford. His HB 335 would let a government agency satisfy the notice requirement by posting information on its own website. That ostensibly would reap savings in the cost of notices paid by taxpayers. The reality is that local governments spend a tiny fraction of their budgets on legal notices. And that money is a smart investment in an independent, archived, permanent source of government information.
To bury that several clicks beneath a city hall's or school district's home page would be putting it in a convenient place for insiders alone.
If a school district or city wants to advertise for bids, the custodian of that notice needs to be an independent third party between government and potential vendor. Notice of a land-use hearing or the sale of property should not be controlled by the agency deciding the outcome. That invites corruption.
Of course, newspapers have a financial interest in the status quo, but that jibes with this industry's watchdog role. Every corner of a newspaper — from front-page exposés to the small print of public notices — might reflect the taxpayer's business on a given day.
That business should be displayed where the maximum number of citizens can see it.
Houston Chronicle. March 10, 2013.
Legislation will restrain the president
There was a sense of a Senate returning to form as Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., munched on a Kit Kat bar in the middle of his 13-hour filibuster — a break from his reading articles about military drones. This grandstanding didn't stop the confirmation of John Brennan as CIA director, unlike the silent holds that have blocked qualified candidates from filling the holes in our judiciary.
Now it is time to turn that rhetorical passion into legislative action. If Paul and his acolytes are serious about restraining executive authority, then they should set their targets on the Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Terrorists. Passed after the terrorist attacks on 9/11, the AUMF granted the president authority to use all necessary force against those who planned, authorized committed or aided in the 9/11 attacks or those who harbored them. Since then, it has been used to justify military force not just in Afghanistan, but Pakistan and Yemen. And against U.S. citizens. Without any explicit restrictions, folks outside the White House are left wondering whether Congress authorized the president to use military force anywhere that could possibly house al-Qaida sympathizers. Legislative history implies that Congress specifically did not include authority within our national borders, but we shouldn't have to guess at whether the president can kill citizens on domestic soil.
Texas Sen. Ted Cruz has joined Paul in introducing a bill to prohibit drone killings of citizens on U.S. soil if they don't represent an imminent threat. But why not look at the AUMF itself? When contemplating presidential authority, we hope that Democrats always imagine a President Dick Cheney. And for Republicans, well, President Barack Obama seems to foster enough healthy skepticism. But for too long both parties have cared more about partisan politics than the ramifications of unchecked presidential power. We hope Paul's filibuster will help bring an end to that era.
San Antonio Express-News. March 8, 2013.
Flexibility, but with a purpose
Flexibility seems to be the watchword these days in Austin when it comes to Medicaid expansion.
It should not just be code for "no."
Fortunately, it seems that many legislators, including House Speaker Joe Straus, are pushing back against no for no's sake, which appears to be the governor's position. They are mindful that Texas leads the nation in the number of uninsured — 6.1 million people or 24 percent of all Texans.
They are seeking to put a Texas stamp on a solution, however; looking for flexibility to perhaps get low-income Texans without insurance into private insurance. This is worth talking about.