Bad Bills

Big Government is Watching



HB 901 Amendment to HB 1191 Rep. Phil King (R-Weatherford) SB 945 Sen. Steve Ogden (R-Bryan)

Brought to us by the Republican “small government” crowd, these bills will put Texans under unprecedented surveillance, invade our privacy, collect any and all information about our bodies, and establish a network of secret cameras to watch over us, all in the name of combating terrorism.

HB 901, known as the red light camera bill, is a masterpiece of governmental intrusion into the private lives of citizens. Sponsored by Phil King (R-Weatherford), it would add 20,000 linked governmental digital surveillance cameras to monitor traffic lights. These are infrared cameras that can recognize a face at 100 feet, peering down at you from traffic lights all over the state. At press time, HB 901 is in the Calendars Committee with strong prospects to pass the House.

The intrusion of King’s cameras becomes more chilling if you consider his amendment, originally introduced but subsequently withdrawn, that would make confidential the location of all security cameras. This dovetails with the interests of the University of Texas, which is embroiled in a lawsuit to keep the location of its surveillance cameras confidential, as well as the interests of airports, power plants, and the Texas Department of Public Safety, all of whom want to keep their eyes on us–without letting us keep our eyes on them.

King raised his amendment on April 2, during a floor discussion on HB 1991, sponsored by Ray Allen (R- Grand Prairie). HB 1991 proposes reasonably to keep plans and blueprints of public facilities confidential, if those plans contain information about specific vulnerabilities: the specifications of bridges or passcodes on laboratory locks. According to Rep. Allen’s chief of staff, Scott Gilmore, his boss doesn’t want the location of surveillance cameras to be secret, which is why HB 1191 doesn’t mention them–and why King eventually pulled his amendment. HB 1191, sans King’s amendment, passed the House and was referred to the Infrastructure Development and Security committee.

SB 945 is authored by Senate Infrastructure chair Steve Ogden (R-Bryan). It will help DPS spy on Texans. This bill gives DPS money for a new computer system that will allow it to capture and compare your biometric information when you apply for a driver’s license, to make sure you don’t sneak more than one, presumably. The bill was voted out of Ogden’s committee, 8-0, perhaps because committee members didn’t grasp its full implications.

The law’s definition of “biometric information” is entirely open. Right now the more common biometrics are fingerprints, thumbprints, and face-prints, but the law doesn’t restrict the use of voiceprints, DNA, or brain wave measurements called “brain fingerprinting” when those technologies become widely available. SB 945 leaves entirely up to DPS what kind of biometrics we citizens will eventually have to give it. If it wants to add voiceprints or DNA, DPS simply does it, no law-writing required, when the fancy computer system that we’ve helped pay for is installed.

Worst of all, the bill creates a loophole by which this information can be used for a multitude of unspecified investigative purposes. In other words, DPS agents won’t just be checking your thumbprint as they do now when you apply for a new driver’s license; they could use facial recognition software to track your activities in your car from cameras you won’t know the location of–all courtesy of the people who want to get government off our backs.


HB 1562 Rep. Tommy Merritt (R-Longview)

Unlike other bills this session that slam the door on open government, HB 1562 doesn’t use catchphrases like “homeland security” to justify government secrecy. Instead, Rep. Merritt’s bill would enable local governmental bodies to block unwanted public information requests simply by calling them a nuisance.

Overturning a longstanding tenet of the open records law, Merritt’s bill would allow governmental entities to request a hearing to determine the applicant’s reason for soliciting information. Requests deemed by an administrative law judge to be “frivolous” or “harassing” would be denied. And, here’s the kicker: All future requests for information by that applicant could then be refused without a hearing for an undefined “reasonable period of time.”

At a March 31 public hearing before the Committee on State Affairs, Merritt insisted this bill would balance the open records process by giving government officials a way to defend themselves against ill-intentioned requests. “At this stage of the game, it’s my understanding that the attorney general will come in to the municipality and say, ‘Look, we have this open records law, and you have to provide it [the requested information], and if you don’t provide it, there’s a penalty for that,'” said Merritt. “And we’re just trying to get around that.”

Rep. Toby Goodman (R-Arlington) estimated that under this bill the process of determining whether a request was harassing would take upwards of six to nine months, not counting possible appeals. Opponents note that such a delay will be a boon to government officials who want to hide information. “As written, this bill creates a huge loophole for local governments to withhold information or to delay releasing it, at least until a hearing could be held,” said Donnis Baggett, testifying on behalf of the Texas Daily Newspaper Association and the Texas Press Association.

Testimony during the public hearing made it clear that the intent of this bill is to soothe local officials who have been the targets of unwanted attention from “some of our ill-regarded, nonplussed and vehement citizens,” in the words of Robert Key of Coppell ISD and the Texas Association of School Boards, who testified in favor. Ron Stephens, city manager of Kilgore, testified that he too had been a target of an abusive request for public information. He urged that this bill be passed to end the harassment.

But in an effort to spare public officials from having to respond to their critics, Merritt’s bill would severely hinder the public’s ability to hold them accountable. In her testimony, Kathy Mitchell of Consumers Union brought the focus back to the constitutional rights Merritt’s bill would deny in order to protect these officials’ wounded egos. “As ugly and unfortunate as some people can treat public officials, that is freedom of speech,” she said. “They are exercising their rights. People have the right to be unpleasant to each other sometimes.”

At press time, HB 1562 was still pending in committee.

Bad Bills are compiled by the Observer’s Bad Bills Girl, who rises vampire-like from hibernation every two years to suck the blood from vile or absurd state legislation. If you have a likely candidate for “Bad Bills,” fax her at (512) 474-1175, or e-mail [email protected].