COMMENTARY

Texans depend on open access to public records

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There is an occasional story or editorial that decries that “the government is profiting by selling your personal information to companies.” The truth in Texas and most states is that the government is not selling your personal information but responding to public record requests and is allowed to charge a reasonable fee to recover its administrative costs in providing the public record. 

Government agencies under Texas law cannot make a profit on responding to public record requests.

Statements like, “But companies are making a profit from public records!” are also seen. This is misleading. Profits are not made from public records, but from value-added services that use public and commercial data combined with smart software for societally beneficial purposes. Texans should support such value-added services as they deliver real benefits to the State of Texas and her citizens alike.

There appears to be a lack of understanding and appreciation of the value and benefit that is gained by all Texans from access to and use of public records and I want to set the record straight. The information in the public record is foundational to many important life events and transactions of Texas residents. Many persons and entities create value-added services from the records they obtain from public sources and use them for a variety of personal, commercial, legal, socially desirable, and essential civic and governmental purposes. 

Examples of these value-added services include risk management, property title protection, transparent and accurate news, protection of vulnerable populations from offenders, the administration of justice, law enforcement, monitoring government spending, fighting government corruption, enforcement of court orders and child support collection and economic forecasting. 

Texans depend on these services that access, combine, and add value to public and commercial data every day and in ways that benefit every resident in the state whether they are aware of it or not. 

There should also be support from Texans for persons and businesses that leverage public resources to increase the value of the public investments. Pizza delivery drivers, truckers, and many others make money from the roads that are supported by gas tax and tolls paid by all. Soft drink bottlers, brewers, and other beverage makers turn water from public utilities into saleable products. Housing and businesses expand using new and improved public roads, transit, sewers, and utilities. 

Anyone with a commercial or personal license to use public lands to hunt, fish, or harvest from public lands can make money with what that get from public lands or just get a good meal. Residents with a Texas public education use it to advance their knowledge and careers. 

Texans would never dream of saying these people or entities are wrong for leveraging these public resources to earn a living or improve their lives. So why the outrage when a newspaper or data company pays the full or marginal cost for a copy of public record, adds value to the data, and makes money?

When something works well, it is often taken for granted and becomes invisible to us — like the systems and services that use public records to protect, serve, and help us in our daily lives.

They work well, and we are very dependent on them for the quality of life we enjoy. We would like to see more defenders of the right to access and use public records and fewer careless attacks on the many persons and entities that use and depend on Texas public records to provide services that meet important societal needs.

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