AUSTIN - A case brought by a group of 15 city officials naming the State of Texas and Attorney General Greg Abbott as defendants failed before the New Orleans-based U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals on Sept. 25.
In Asgeirsson et al. v. Abbott, plaintiffs sought to have the court declare the Texas open meetings law “unconstitutionally vague” and “over-broad” primarily because of criminal provisions local governmental officials face if accused of knowingly circumventing the law. A violation is a misdemeanor punishable by a fine of $100 to $500, confinement in jail for one to six months, or both.
Plaintiffs’ central argument was that the criminal portion of the law abridges their right to free speech under the First Amendment. However, in a unanimous decision by a three-judge panel, the 5th Circuit affirmed a lower court ruling that the law is constitutionally sound.
After the court released its decision on Sept. 25, Abbott said the outcome “… is a great victory for democracy and the First Amendment. The decision further guarantees the public will continue to have access to information about how their government works. Making meetings accessible and allowing the public to see how decisions are made are the foundation of open government. A healthy democracy requires that the public have access to how government operates.”
In 2006, again in 2009-2010 and currently in 2011-2012, sets of more than a dozen city officials from many regions of Texas unsuccessfully brought the same general case and arguments before a federal district court and the 5th Circuit.
Originally adopted by the Texas Legislature in 1967, the open meetings law is intended to discourage public officials from meeting in non-public settings to deliberate on public business. According to the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, invalidating the law potentially would allow government corruption to escape public scrutiny.
Disclosure: Texas Press Association participated in a friend-of-the-court brief in support of the state’s position in Asgeirsson v. Abbott.
Push is on for spending limits
Gov. Rick Perry, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and other Republicans last week called a stricter constitutional spending limit for the state budget ahead of the upcoming legislative session.
In calling for a spending limiting amendment to the state constitution, Perry said, “Government growth, if any, should be kept to the bare minimum and should be limited … to the rate of our population growth combined with the rate of inflation.”
Dewhurst said Texas is “the national model when it comes to keeping state spending to a minimum,” adding, “We take pride in the fact that Texas ranks 47th out of 50th per capita in state spending.”
Perry called on lawmakers to commit to the five principals of his Texas Budget Compact: Practice “Truth in Budgeting”; Support a constitutional limit of spending to the growth of population and inflation; Oppose any new taxes or tax increases and make the small business tax exemption permanent; Preserve a strong Rainy Day Fund; and Cut unnecessary and duplicative government programs and agencies.
In explaining Truth in Budgeting, Perry said, “We owe it to Texans to create a budget process that’s more honest and transparent by making the tough decisions Texans make every day and presenting a truly balanced budget free of IOUs and accounting maneuvers.”
Red tape site seeks input
Computer users who have an Internet connection now have an easy way to make their thoughts known on an expanding variety of statewide topics including occupational licensing, state agency rule making, public school mandates and manufacturing in Texas.
Texas Red Tape Challenge (www.texasredtapechallenge.com) allows citizens to log in and “share ideas, discuss others’ ideas and vote the best ones to the top.”
According to the site’s sponsor, Texas House Government Reform and Efficiency Committee, “workable ideas that gain consensus will be considered by the Committee for inclusion in its formal report to the 83rd Legislature which begins in January 2013.”
More kids taking SAT
Data released by the College Board on Sept. 24 show that in Texas between the 2007-2008 school year and last school year, the number of Hispanic public school students taking the Scholastic Aptitude Test increased by 65 percent.
Gains in SAT-taking also were posted by African-American students, up 42 percent; Asian students, up 29 percent; and white students, up 9 percent.
State Education Commissioner Michael Williams reacted, saying, “We are clearly building a college-going culture in Texas.”