Education
2:34 pm
Tue April 9, 2013

Zaffirini Bill Would Clarify Open Records Obligations

State Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, filed a bill on Monday to clarify the open records obligations of state agencies, including — some would say specifically — the University of Texas System.

Last week, UT Regents Chairman Gene Powell asked Attorney General Greg Abbott if he could withhold certain documents from state lawmakers that they had requested.

Powell expressed concern that sharing the documents might interfere with the system's ability to conduct an investigation that is within its scope of responsibility. He said handing the records over, even confidentially, "may impede or cause the abrogation or loss of the attorney-client privilege of the governmental body, or may intrude and unduly interfere upon the power of a governing board of any agency within the executive branch established by the Texas Constitution to conduct its activities and fulfill its legal mandates and responsibilities."

The attorney general has yet to weigh in. On Monday, Senate Higher Education Committe Chairman Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, told the Tribune he expected Abbott would find Powell's claims to be "baseless," at which time he expects the system to turn over the documents "immediately."

To prevent future attempts to withhold records on such grounds, Zaffirini's Senate Bill 1882 adds language specifying that the provision granting lawmakers privileged access to records at state agencies also applies to communications between attorneys and clients. It also requires the disclosure of documents that the agency feels might "may impede or cause the abrogation or loss of the attorney-client privilege of the governmental body" or "intrude and unduly interfere upon the power of a governing board of any agency within the executive branch established by the Texas Constitution to conduct its activities and fulfill its legal mandates and responsibilities."

Powell also asked Abbott if documents requested by lawmakers had to be turned over in a certain time frame. Zaffirini's bill establishes that they must be produced "promptly," meaning "as soon as possible." If it takes longer than 10 business days, the agency must set a date and hour "within a reasonable time" when the information will be made available.

Lawmakers have already filed bills targeting the UT System regents, who some lawmakers have accused of being on a "witch hunt" to oust University of Texas at Austin President Bill Powers. Seliger recently passed a bill out of committee requiring more training and adding temporary voting restrictions for newly appointed members of university system boards. The Texas House also added amendments to its budget bill stripping the UT System board of some authority and funding.

Technically, the filing deadline for bills has passed. But bills can still be added if they are considered local bills or if — as in the case of SB 1882 — the Senate is willing to suspend the rules to allow it to be filed. As of Tuesday, Zaffirini's bill had 16 co-authors.