I don’t care for this.
The Texas Supreme Court on Friday limited the public’s right to know about private groups that get government funds.
In a 6-3 opinion, the court sided with the Greater Houston Partnership, agreeing that GHP doesn’t have to open its check registers even though it received funds from the city of Houston and other local governments worth about $1 million per year.
Open government advocates slammed the decision to curtail the reach of the Texas Public Information Act.
“Now GHP and groups like it that tap the spigot of public funding may draw the curtain against citizens examining how those funds are spent,” attorney Paul Watler wrote in a statement for the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas.
GHP hailed the decision as a protection against unwarranted intrusions on private business.
“With this ruling, economic development and chamber of commerce organizations like the Partnership can continue to work on behalf of their communities without being mischaracterized as governmental bodies,” President Bob Harvey wrote in a statement, saying those protections are now also extended to other private organizations that contract with the government.
The case stemmed from a 2007 request by Jim Jenkins of Montgomery County, who wanted to see how GHP spends the city’s money. GHP, the region’s major economic development group, argued it wasn’t a governmental body for the purposes of the act, and eventually sued to block disclosure of its finances.
The Texas Attorney General, a trial court and an appellate court each previously ruled that GHP must open its books because, although it runs primarily on membership dues, it performs work for the city that makes it, in essence, an extension of the government. GHP plays a significant role in Houston’s economic development programs, courts new business for the city and plans mayoral business recruiting trips. It also analyzes business prospects to help City Council determine whether to offer incentives.
Jenkins, a small business owner, complained that there is too much money and politics at play in the way businesses get taxpayer-funded incentives, creating a field of “haves” and “have nots” based on political access. He argued that GHP’s expenditures would shed light on that process.
If the city “can just give money to a private entity like that with no accounting, we’re all in trouble,” Jenkins said.
Joe Larsen, another Freedom of Information Foundation attorney, said the court’s new test could have the effect of allowing government to easily outsource its functions. For example, a corporation with $200 million in total revenue could run the city’s water department for $10 million. As long as most of its income comes from other ventures, the corporation wouldn’t be subject to public information requests about the utility.
“That’s pretty hard to swallow,” said Larsen, who believes the all-conservative court is giving undue deference to private enterprise in this case.
Lynne Liberato, who argued for GHP, said governments outsource to the private sector all the time – like the foreign companies that build and operate toll roads. She said even in those situations, much information is still available through the government, such as contracts, reports and expenditures.
Gotta say, that explanation from the GHP’s attorney makes this ruling sound even worse. I just don’t get the justification. Rulings like this are a good argument for having more diversity of opinion on the court. Maybe having at least one person analyzing this from something other than a conservative perspective wouldn’t have changed the outcome, but it’s hard to see how it would have hurt.