Tell the Truth Texas, a new website created by the office of Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts Susan Combs, seeks to be a “one-stop source to collect all available information on local government finances in our state, including the existing and proposed debt of cities, counties, school and hospital districts and hundreds of special-purpose districts throughout Texas.” Our local government debt is at $322 billion (principal and interest) with public spending in high gear. That should be eye-opening if not mind-boggling yet much of the public is both unaware and seems largely unconcerned.
While hard to believe this is the legacy people want to leave for their children, it is indeed happening. Local debt is growing faster than the increase in population and inflation. Local government debt is issued by Texas school districts, cities, counties, community colleges, health/hospital districts, water districts and authorities along with other special purpose districts.
School districts account for the largest growth sector of outstanding local government debt while the biggest percentage debt increase is in special purpose districts. With spending, 1999 through 2009 saw Texas public education funding rise five times faster than student enrollment growth. Increased spending also occurs as bond-financed facilities and other infrastructure upgrades often translate into new budgetary spending.
The Lone Star State is second only to California in total debt and second only to New York in per capita debt. Being a top U.S. debtor state is a designation worthy of concern!
Tell the Truth Texas spotlights local government finance and offers this warning:
Local spending and debt are skyrocketing, as is the sheer number of government bodies that levy taxes and issue debt in your name.
Efforts to introduce more transparency into local spending and debt never made it to a full vote in this recent legislative session, and every taxpayer in our state should sit up and take notice.
The blocking of local spending and debt transparency bills was perhaps one of the biggest betrayals of Texas taxpayers within the 83rd Texas legislative session – and it was perpetrated by local governments.
Think debt and spending are problems other places – not in your community? Think again. Americans for Prosperity – Texas recently alerted taxpayers to what’s at stake with the upcoming November election:
A total of 73 taxing entities across the Lone Star State are asking voters to approve over $5 billion in bond debt.
Projects range from $3.1 million for an aquatic center in Marble Falls to $65 million in “affordable housing” in Austin to $217 million in Harris County to convert the Astrodome into a convention center to $490 million in Fort Worth ISD and $451 million in Comal ISD to $490 million in United ISD to build 13 new schools. And Katy ISD is wanting $99 million to build – among other things – as 12,000-seat second stadium/multipurpose facility.
Communities big and small are pursuing new debt. And remember that operating and maintaining new facilities brings new spending needs.
The Texas Comptroller’s office has done much to arm taxpayers with knowledge regarding Texas’ overall debt picture and how local entities stack up in the mix. With the Texas, It’s Your Money series, the Comptroller’s office focused on four areas impacting the daily lives of Texans: Your Money and the Taxing Facts, Your Money and Local Debt, Your Money and Education Debt and Your Money and Pension Obligations.
The Tell the Truth Texas site offers information on upcoming bond elections, debt-at-a-glance data on specific cities, counties and school districts as well as explanations of the different types of debt Texas taxpayers are taking on. It provides tools for use in examining the finances of local governments in specific areas, including their taxes and outstanding debt.
A guide to understanding Comprehensive Annual Financial Reports (CAFRs) is also included. Tracking local government spending and accounting practices can be a meaty task. Its complicated nature often appears as by design simultaneously to bury information to which taxpayers are entitled and to undermine attempted accountability efforts.
Also of interest is the Texans on Debt: What You’re Saying section in which taxpayers weigh in on questions including the accessibility of debt information in their communities. The need for a tool like Tell the Truth Texas is reinforced when 90 percent of respondents said it was important to be able to find out about local government debt though when asked how well informed they are on local debt issues, more than 75 percent cited being only somewhat informed or completely uninformed. Not good – especially as the November election brings those 73 taxing entities looking that $5+ billion in new debt.
As in one’s household, shouldn’t taxpayers know the big picture before taking on new financial obligations? Decisions made today are heavily influencing our childrens’ futures. Educated taxpayers supporting sound policy decisions are critical to ensure any prosperity for upcoming generations. The Tell the Truth Texas and Texas: It’s Your Money web sites offer valuable information to this end.
The Texas Bond Review Board site also provides important data while AFP-Texas offers this listing of bond packages slated for the November election.
AFP-Texas State Director Peggy Venable often asks if you can’t trust officials to provide good information,how can you trust them to responsibly spend your money? The answer – you can’t! But, these tools provide taxpayers the means by which to gain at least better information and know the issues before voting.
Don’t forget, it is your money!