in Houston, Texas
Measures by Texas lawmakers Helen Giddings, Robert Duncan, and Jane Nelson would deal a blow to open government
Thursday, Apr 16, 2009, 04:47PM CST
By Matt Pulle
Rep. Helen Giddings, D-Desoto, has proposed legislation that would remove birth dates from state employee records in a well-meaning attempt to safeguard private information. But the bridge to Cuba is full of good intentions. Giddings' bill, which received a public hearing yesterday, will make it far more difficult for reporters, bloggers, concerned parents, activists, you name it, to know more about who's in charge of the people's business.

Birth dates are valuable tools for anyone wanting to hold public employees accountable for their occasional misdeeds. Without that type of information, it's far more difficult to piece together clues about corruption, misconduct, conflicts of interest and criminal wrongdoing.

Did John Doe, who works for the state Department of Revenue, just receive a tax lien? Is Sally Smith, who works as a teacher at a Texas Youth Commission facility, the same Sally Smith who was just charged with solicitation? Did Jane Doe, who works for the state board of education, lie when she claimed to have a master's degree from Rice University?

If Giddings gets her way, good luck answering any of those questions.

Of course, the DeSoto state rep is hardly the only lawmaker looking to restrict the public's right to know.  Sen. Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock, has proposed a similar bill, while Sen. Jane Nelson,  R-Flower Mound, has proposed the most far-reaching measure of all, which would remove birth dates from the records of all public employees.

Understandably, the Texas Public Employees Association is supporting Giddings' bill, noting that their employees have a right to privacy. And, of course, there is always the risk, however slight, of identity theft. We get all that. Even the worst bills have their merits.

But the state employees don't work for a private organization. They work for us. And while they perform vital tasks, from ensuring the safety of bridges to prosecuting corrupt officials, people outside government still need to be able to keep up with them. You and I, and probably everybody else reading Texas Watchdog, are paying their salary.

This is hardly an abstract debate that doesn't affect the everyday citizen. In November 2006, the Dallas Morning News discovered hundreds of Dallas ISD employees who had criminal records. Before that, in 2003, it uncovered registered sex offenders working for the district. Wouldn't you want to know that if you were a parent? A teacher? Or the editor of a student newspaper?

By the way, though my salary is not covered by tax dollars, let's just preempt any criticism that I'm insensitive to the concerns of public employees:

Matthew Edward Pulle 08/15/1972
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