Back in March, I discussed Texas Comptroller Susan Combs and her efforts to promote government transparency in the Lone Star State. Despite some roadblocks, she is still forging ahead.
At the time, she was advocating for the passage of HB 14 and SB 14, which, if passed, would have required all Texas cities to post financial information on debt and taxes online. This would allow taxpayers to see where their money was going and review specific information about additional public debt proposals.
The bills, however, faced major opposition by local officials and other interest groups. The West Houston Association, in one letter, argued, "Our experience is that voters are inclined to vote against new taxes and bonds unless they are otherwise informed. Proponents of bonds must therefore work diligently to build consensus and support far in advance of an election."
But isn't that exactly the point of voting? Combs mentioned a discussion with the mayor of a large Texas city, who claimed his residents would be upset if they knew they owed over a billion dollars. Her response was, "Don't you think they should be told that before they sign on the dotted line?"
Combs wants to overcome the false assumption by public officials that the average citizen is "too dumb to understand the debt but plenty smart to pay." Though both transparency bills were defeated last spring by parliamentary maneuvers, Combs has far from given up.
The Comptroller's Office recently launched a new campaign called "Tell the Truth Texas." Beginning with the 20 largest cities, Combs will begin categorizing data on debt and taxes to make it easy for citizens to access their city's information.
It's an ambitious undertaking, to be sure. To retrieve the relevant financial data, many months of individual research and reporting must be done. Still, Combs expects to have the data from all 254 counties by January 1.
Transparency fosters a spirit of openness and honesty between citizens and their elected officials. "Ultimately, if you don't tell people, and they know you don't want them to know what you've done, it simply added to the level of distrust," she said.
Accountability is vital to ensuring the success of these efforts as well. Citizens need to know which leaders oppose the transparency efforts. The Comptroller's Office awards cities on their quality of transparency leadership, and Combs believes other groups may soon begin their own scorecards for elected officials.
At a time when our federal government seems less transparent than ever, it is heartening to hear about Combs' tireless efforts on the state and local levels. Texas citizens and other Americans should take note and challenge their local governments to support these transparency efforts or embrace similar policies.