Americans for Prosperity: Local Government Needs More Sunshine
Statement by Peggy Venable on Sunshine Week in Texas
AUSTIN, TX -- Sunshine Week provides an opportunity to promote open government and transparency. Some legislation filed by committee chairmen in Texas will help the sun shine on local government in Texas.
Transparency in government is important to citizens. It enables us to know what our government is doing, how our tax dollars are being spent, and enables us to be more informed voters and citizen activists.
While the State of Texas earns an “A” for transparency from the Sunshine Review, local governments are not so award-winning. Taxpayers are often in the dark regarding how much local government debt they owe and how much it has grown.
But grown it has. According to the Comptroller’s “Texas, It’s Your Money” report series on local government debt,
- In the last decade, local governments more than doubled their debt load to more than $7,500 for every man, woman and child in the state.
- Since 1993, the number of Texas special districts levying sales tax has increased by more than 1,900 percent. The number levying property tax has risen by 45 percent.
- Taxpayers have been asked to approve billions in debt without sufficient context — often with no idea of current debt load or annual debt service payments.
As director of Americans for Prosperity-Texas, I have spoken to almost 100 across the state and no one individual could answer precisely how much debt their local taxing entities carried. Texas Comptroller Susan Combs held town halls across the state, and reported that not one person knew how much local debt they owed when asked.
This information is available on the Texas Bond Review Board website, but few citizens have known how to access the data.
It is appropriate that Sunshine Week focus on what lawmakers are doing to bring more transparency to government. This legislative session, a number of good government transparency bills have been introduced.
Comptroller Combs has proposed legislation being sponsored by Senate Finance Chairman Tommy Williams and House Appropriations Chairman Jim Pitts – Senate Bill 14 and companion bill House Bill 14 respectively.
This legislation requires cities, counties, school districts, community college districts, universities and special districts that levy taxes or issue debt to provide more financial transparency to the public. The bill ensures voters will be more informed when they vote on new debt and limits the ability of governments to issue debt without voter approval. The legislation also ensures that special-purpose taxing entities demonstrate they serve the purposes for which they were created.
The legislation helps citizens by putting spending and debt information online and provides information on the ballot so voters can make informed decisions. This is important as currently, voters are often not made fully aware of how new proposed debt fits into the total debt carried by their local government. These bills require ballots for new debt to include:
- The amount of proposed debt;
- How long the proposed debt will take to pay off;
- Principal outstanding on current debt (before proposed bond issuance);
- Maximum remaining interest on existing debt; and
- Total debt service on existing debt.
The legislation is also written to limit debt issued without taxpayer approval. In Texas, local governments can issue debt without voter approval through Certificates of Obligation (CO’s) and that funding source represents 16.6 percent of all debt issued by eligible entities. This legislation would also protect voter intent by preventing governments from issuing a CO to pay for a purpose voters have already rejected.
While taxpayers are busy earning a living, raising a family and volunteering in their community, they should not be responsible for researching how much money they owe when they are asked to consider more local government debt.
Americans for Prosperity (AFP) is a nationwide organization of citizen-leaders committed to advancing every individual’s right to economic freedom and opportunity. AFP believes reducing the size and intrusiveness of government is the best way to promote individual productivity and prosperity for all Americans. For more information, visitwww.americansforprosperity.org