What they’re not telling you – and don’t want you to know

June 20, 2013

As an AFP activist, you know that Americans for Prosperity-Texas has been the leading voice calling for local government debt transparency (http://americansforprosperity.org/texas/issues/budget-spending/) We have traveled the state speaking to our activists and other groups about local debt. We have been accused by the Texas Municipal League of launching an “Anti-City Jihad” and have been featured (not in a favorable light) by the Texas Association of Counties in their organization’s official magazine.

It has been our mission to call attention to local debt in Texas, and we were willing to take on the local government folks who wanted to silence us. We have done this without much back-up. At least until recently. We have had a true hero take up this fight – Texas Comptroller Susan Combs. She has researched local debt and produced a stunning report posted as It’s Your Money – Local Government Debt. She championed legislation this session which would provide you and me with more information on local debt. That legislation was killed this session by local government officials who were opposed to transparency and wanted to keep you and me – the taxpayer – in the dark. We list those local officials who either personally or through their paid lobbyists and consultants worked publicly to kill the bill.

In a new blog post we also list the local government associations which – using our money – lobbied to keep this good government bill from passing. (http://americansforprosperity.org/texas/legislativealerts/who-opposed-local-government-transparency-you-have-a-right-to-know/)

We have recognized Comptroller Combs for her outstanding work and have named her a Trailblazer for Government Transparency (http://americansforprosperity.org/texas/legislativealerts/comptroller-susan-combs-texas-trailblazer-for-transparency/).

We want to share with you an op ed she pinned this week which describes better than we can just what happened this session and what we need to do in the future to demand more transparency in local government debt:

Government transparency killed in drive-by neglect

Published June 16, 2013

By Susan Combs

The Internet is the most powerful and most universal communications medium ever devised. That’s been obvious since we started talking about the “information superhighway,” a buzzword that now seems to date from the Pleistocene.

So why have our state and local governments been so slow to take advantage of it?

We’ve all learned to check the Web first for the data we need – but all too often, information on what government is doing with your money simply isn’t there. Why not?

It isn’t hard to use the Web. So is the failure to do so a result of incompetence – or is it a deliberate strategy?

I’ve spent a long time urging Texas governments to become more transparent to the public, using the incredible vehicle of the Web. My office has made a lot of progress in unveiling our state’s finances, and while there’s always more to do, I’m proud to say we’ve won national recognition for our transparency efforts. In the 2013 U.S. PIRG rankings, Texas scored first in the nation for online access to government spending data, for the second year running.

Six other states got A ratings in the survey. But given the ease of Internet publishing and the obvious public demand for transparency, why did so many states fare so poorly? Seven states got D’s and five received F’s, including our largest state.

And the picture’s even more troubling with local governments. They’re responsible for more than $1.7 trillion in outstanding public debt, according to the most recent census report, but their finances are usually a mystery to the taxpayers who ultimately pay the bills.

That’s as true in Texas as anywhere else. In our state’s recent legislative session, we got to see just how hard it is to shine a light on local government finance. I supported a bill, HB 14, that aimed to spotlight those finances by requiring our local governments to disclose certain information on websites and ballots.

The firestorm that ensued says a lot about the difficulties involved in introducing transparency – and about the priorities of some public officials. Now in hindsight, some of the arguments against the bill were just to cause delay, accompanied by an extraordinarily cynical debate behind closed doors.

For elections on new debt, for instance, the bill originally required ballots to include a brief statement of the government’s finances, including its outstanding debt, to give voters some context before asking them to pile on more debt. The mayor of one of Texas’ largest cities told me he couldn’t support that – if people knew how much debt they were already carrying, he said, they’d be really upset at how high it was. Duh.

In public, of course, the refrain was a little different: Debt information would confuse the poor voters, you see, or fatigue them. In plain English, that means we’re too dumb to know, but plenty smart enough to pay.

The bill also asked local governments to present basic revenue, expenditure and debt data on a website. Not exactly a cutting-edge requirement these days, you’d think, but some opponents made it sound like we’d asked them to build a supercollider.

HB 14’s sponsors made every attempt to get local governments on board, repeatedly trimming its requirements back. The bill wasn’t just eroded, it was sandblasted. But it was still too much for some local leaders, who put the thumbscrews on behind the scene. Then, twice, the bill was killed by points of order, technicalities incomprehensible to the ordinary Texan.

It was a very nifty drive-by resulting in a convenient demise. No one wanted to be seen voting against a transparency bill, after all – so they didn’t.

We learned some lessons, though. Everyone approves of financial transparency – until you ask them to act on it. Then, any and every excuse will be trotted out to avoid greater disclosure.

It’s almost like they had something to hide.

And we learned another lesson, and one that government leaders throughout the U.S. should pay attention to: If you truly, genuinely want transparency, you can’t count on a lot of allies. You’ve got to do as much as you can on your own.

That’s what my office is doing now. We haven’t abandoned the dream embodied in HB 14, we’re just refurbishing it a little. We’ve created a website, Tell the Truth Texas, that will assemble every scrap of relevant data on local government finances we can find to mirror the legislation.

I suspect some people won’t like this. But governments have no good reason not to be transparent. The technology is there. The Internet is the new public square and is relatively easy and cheap.

All you need is the will. We have it. So stay tuned.

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