Championing for Open Government
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EDITOR'S NOTE: This is one in an occasional series of opinion pieces on legislators and other Texans who are openly committed to sustaining government transparency and accountability. The articles are being prepared and distributed by the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas and the Texas Press Association.
By Dave Montgomery
During the 2015 Texas Legislature, while most other transparency and ethics reform proposals were headed toward the trash heap, Rep. Giovanni Capriglione secured near-unanimous passage of a new law that has enabled the public to see who benefits financially from dealings with the government.
His victory in pushing through House Bill 1295, requiring the disclosure of interested parties in state and local government contracts, cemented Capriglione’s stature as one of the state capitol’s leading advocates of government accountability. Now, with the approach of the 2017 Legislature, Capriglione hopes to build on his success by seeking to blunt the impact of state court decisions that rolled back access to public records.
The 43-year-old Southlake Republican has made transparency a key ingredient in his legislative agenda since winning election to the House in 2012. He sums up his outlook by recycling a quote from U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis more than 100 years ago: “Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.”
“Transparency is one of those principles that you can never have enough of,” Capriglione said. “Accountability in government is of fundamental importance. And that accountability starts with the ability to see how the government spends your money.”
Capriglione, who is seeking re-election to a third term over a Democratic challenger in his heavily Republican northeast Tarrant County district, is targeting two Texas Supreme Court rulings as he looks toward the 85th Legislature that starts on Jan. 10.
Both rulings, made in 2015, have tightened access to public records held by private and non-profit entities. The court ruled that the non-profit Greater Houston Partnership was not required to disclose its financial records even though it performed economic development duties for the city of Houston and was partly supported by public funds.
Public access watchdogs have also deplored the court’s ruling in favor of a Boeing Aerospace company operating in San Antonio. The 7-1 court majority ruled that Boeing and other private entities doing business with the government can block the release of information that the companies contend would give an advantage to competitors.
Capriglione said he plans to introduce legislation to effectively undo the court rulings through changes in the Texas Public Information Act, thus restoring access to documents that previously were considered public. The two bills would be the first measures he introduces for the 2017 session, he said.
Describing what he called the “chilling” decision in the Boeing case, Capriglione said it allows private entities that don’t want information disclosed “to basically shut down that access.”
“We’ve got to get back to where I think people want to be. If you’re going to have access to public dollars, you should have to disclose that information,” he said.
Capriglione’s success with House Bill 1295 contrasted with the collapse of nearly two dozen other accountability and transparency measures, many of them contained in a polarizing omnibus bill, despite Gov. Greg Abbott’s pledge to dedicate the 2015 session to ethics reform. Described by the Texas Tribune as “a leading advocate of ethics reform in the notoriously unrestrained Texas Legislature,” Capriglione secured passage with a unanimous vote in the House and only one dissenting vote in the Senate.
Signed into law in June 2015, the measure requires the disclosure of “interested parties,” those with a financial benefit, in government contracts of $1 million or more. So far, more than 5,200 certificates with the required information have been posted on the Texas Ethics Commission website, which offers customized searches to look for interested parties, government entities and businesses.
Next session, Capriglione said, he hopes to expand on information available to the public under the new law, including identifying which interested parties are elected officials. As a freshman lawmaker, Capriglione pushed unsuccessful legislation that would have required state elected officials to disclose government contracts in which they had a financial interest.
Capriglione, a private equity manager and father of three, said he recognized the need for expanded public access before he became a House member when he personally experienced challenges in unearthing information.
“I was trying to find information about local budgets, and I just found it to be very difficult,” he said. “The more information I tried to find, the more I felt it should be easier to get.”
As a candidate in 2012, Capriglione said, he discovered plenty of sympathizers while block-walking throughout House District 28, telling potential constituents of his goal to shed more sunlight on state and local government.
“After talking to a few thousand of them, it became clear that is what the average person wants,” he said.
Dave Montgomery is a Texas freelance journalist. He wrote this story on behalf of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, which hosts its state conference Sept. 8, 2016, in Austin. For more information go to www.foift.org.