After a week's delay, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick signs bill to increase transparency in public records law

ByVianna Davila, The Texas Tribune
Wednesday, June 7, 2023
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AUSTIN, Texas -- Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick on Tuesday signed legislation that aims to increase the transparency of the state's public records law after delaying its delivery to the governor for a week.

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His delayed action comes amid the public airing of increasingly frayed political relations between Patrick and his Republican counterparts in state leadership, House Speaker Dade Phelan and Gov. Greg Abbott.

House Bill 30, filed by Texas Democratic state Rep. Joe Moody, was a priority for Phelan, a Republican.

The bill, if signed by the governor, would close a long-standing loophole in state law that allows government agencies to withhold or heavily redact law enforcement records if a person has not been convicted or received probation. Government agencies have used the exception, dubbed the "dead suspects loophole," to withhold information in situations in which suspects die in police custody, are killed by law enforcement or even commit suicide, as ProPublica and The Texas Tribune reported last month.

At the end of a press conference Tuesday mostly spent lambasting Phelan and Abbott's property tax plans, Patrick told reporters that lawmakers in the Senate and House had agreed to pass Moody's bill if another piece of Republican legislation was also approved.

Moody told the news organizations he held up his end of the bargain not to oppose the Republican legislation in the House, but ultimately it did not pass. His public records bill did.

Patrick said when he found out the next day that the House had "played games there," he pulled out Moody's bill from a stack of others he needed to sign. "I said, 'What's that bill all about, let me see that bill.'"

SEE ALSO: Analysis: Secrecy reigns as information requests almost always denied by Attorney General

Patrick said he "stuck" the legislation on his podium, where it's remained ever since. He said Tuesday he always planned to sign it.

The lieutenant governor's office did not respond to questions about his delayed signature.

Phelan's communications director, Cait Wittman, said Tuesday that holding up the bill "absolutely is political."

The Texas Constitution requires that the top leaders of the House and Senate sign all legislation in order for it to proceed to the governor for consideration. Patrick signed all but Moody's.

"The bottom line, he has a constitutional duty to sign this bill," Wittman said. "You don't make deals off the Constitution."

Wittman also accused Senate officials of lying about what happened to the bill and blaming it on the House. A Senate journal clerk told Austin television station KXAN in an email that the bill was never delivered to the Senate for signing in the first place. House officials maintained the bill made it to the Senate for signature.

Moody declined to publicly comment on the bill's status until after the legislation was en route to the governor's office Tuesday. In a statement to ProPublica and the Tribune, Moody did not address the delay, focusing instead on the eight years he's spent trying to close this loophole.

"I don't mind waiting another week for the bill to come to the governor as long as Texas families don't have to wait any longer for the answers they deserve," Moody's statement said. "I appreciate Speaker Phelan making it a priority to shine this light on something that should never be in the dark in a free society."

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