Our government was created by our founders to be accountable to its citizens. Democracy requires transparency to work. Self-governance requires that people be informed of what our government is doing and to participate in the decision making process. Our elected officials have the obligation to help our citizens navigate resources, be facilitators of information, speak up for the needs and concerns of all communities. Sunshine and open government laws require certain information and proceedings of government agencies to be open or available to the public. Sunshine laws are what enable holding the government accountable and to enable the people to see what the government is doing and perhaps failing to do.
Open government is even more essential now as our nation faces the uncertainty and dangers associated with the spread of the COVID-19. It is essential to have open communication, so all residents are informed and aware of how to best move forward. Coordination of all state agencies to create and communicate critical steps that will be implemented by all governmental bodies, medical experts, researchers, citizen actions as we move forward together needs to be planned and implemented at a statewide level. For example, in South Korea, they have been aggressively testing much more than we have (nearly 20,000 per day) and are sending out text messages to people within a certain radius whenever there is a positive test for the virus so people can see if they need to be concerned or not.
They appear to have hit the peak number of cases.
This begs the question, are we moving in the way we need to in order to respond to this crisis? A truly open government provides all of its residents oversight.
The current crisis will show if our leadership at the highest levels is adequately addressing the pandemic. We cannot depend on federal efforts alone.
The State of Texas has the responsibility to provide factual information to all citizens, provide or mobilize help for our medical institutions, keep emergency personnel trained and safe, increase preparations for large scale vaccinations when available, and testing.
There is only one hospital for infectious diseases in Bexar County and it would be overwhelmed if the virus multiplied rapidly. While I am thankful that drive-thru testing is available for healthcare workers and first responders in San Antonio and soon in Austin, Dallas, and Houston, however, our testing capacity is not adequate. We cannot move forward to tackle this problem without more testing. People need to know whether or not they are infected in order to be treated and know the true impact of COVID-19 here in Texas.
86th Legislative Session
When only one party controls the Governorship, the State Senate, and the Texas House of Representatives, there is often a lack of accountability. While the legislature and governor have acted when there is a big controversy, they have not moved to address overall systemic issues. Neither the governor nor the legislature seems focused on ensuring true transparency.
Although there were roughly 7,541 bills filed, only a handful of those bills were Sunshine Bills. Some of the Sunshine bills that did pass include the following:
SB 943 Expanding public disclosure requirements for certain government contracts so the public can see what they are buying and if they are getting what is promised to them.
SB 944: This bill ensures the government has a mechanism to retrieve public information stored on officials’ private devices.
SB 1640: Prohibiting certain communications outside of open meetings. This bill enhances the Open Meetings Act by not allowing government bodies to make decisions in a series of small, secret meetings. The goal is to ensure the public’s business is conducted in the open.
SB 81: Ensures the disclosure of certain information related to parades, concerts, or other entertainment events open to the general public that are paid for with public funds.
In addition, there were four bills that were not passed this past legislative session that could have shined more sunlight on the action of those leading our government.
SB 366: Requires lobbyists submit information on gifts and travel expenses paid to immediate family members of the legislative and executive branch and provides monetary limits on lobbyists.
SB 367: Prohibits lobbyists from holding elected office positions at the same time they lobby.
SB 368: Former legislators must wait one legislative cycle after leaving public office before they can profit from lobbying their former colleagues.
SB 369: Requires the Texas Ethics Commission to maintain lobby registrations and reports online, so they are easily accessible to the public.
All of these would fight corruption and ensure transparency so when issues like a pandemic arise we can have confidence that our government is doing what it needs to in addressing the problems.
Need for Sunshine Legislation
With the COVID-19 pandemic, transparency and accountability is needed now more than ever at all levels of government. We deserve to know why we are so behind on testing for COVID-19. We deserve to know what resources our state agencies have and if they have all they need to respond effectively to this crisis.
Sunshine legislation can make public information accessible to everyone so we can hold our executive and legislative leaders accountable.
As your next State Senator, I will strive to promote transparency, and ethical leadership and ensure all state agencies are held accountable.
Xochil Peña Rodriguez is a Democratic candidate running for State Senate District 19.
The offices of Peña Rodriguez, her opponent in the run-off Roland Gutierrez, and Republican incumbent State Sen. Pete Flores were asked on March 10 to provide their opinion on Sunshine Week.