Government interest groups are confessing their belief that reforms aimed at providing greater fiscal transparency to voters will be harmful to local governments. Unsurprisingly, a better-informed voter makes debt-hungry governments nervous.
During Wednesday’s hearing by the Senate Committee on Intergovernmental Relations, Don Lee, the Executive Director of the Texas Conference of Urban Counties (CUC) stated:
“[Greater] transparency [on the ballot] will restrict municipalities access to capital markets.”
That’s a perplexing claim. Lee further lamented that giving voters basic financial information will somehow “not give voters the whole picture,” a ridiculous claim routinely advanced by transparency opponents grasping for straws.
Apparently, leaving voters in the dark is somehow more informative?
Texas state law requires voters to approve local debt propositions, which are used to finance large-scale projects. But the details provided on the ballot are often ambiguous. Transparency reform centers on requiring governments to disclose basic information about the proposal and the local government’s fiscal health on the ballot, a non-controversial idea that has gained bipartisan support.
The CUC, for example, is a non-profit, tax-funded government-interest group representing urban counties. They spread propaganda to legislators and local officials in an effort to protect any and all county authority.
They are close allies with the anti-taxpayer Texas Municipal League, a sister group representing cities. During the last legislative session, the CUC absurdly labeled property tax reform a “clear and present danger” to the Texas miracle.
According to CUC propaganda, economic prosperity results from higher public spending, taxing, and debt, not from private productivity spurred by innovation and hard work.
Simply put, big government is never quite big enough.
Although the committee appeared largely unimpressed by the CUC’s empty rhetoric, James Quintero, Director of the Center for Local Governance at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, provided insightful testimony. He cited compelling evidence exposing problems with existing state laws that have failed to hold local politicians to a common-sense standard.
Quintero focused on documented efforts by cities engaging in legally dubious behavior and other problems he described as “muddy ballot language, missing features, and rogue policies.”
Houston officials, led by Mayor Annise Parker, recently tried to trick voters with perplexing ballot language during the “HERO” battle. It was so confusing that a lawsuit brought by citizens forced the ballot language to be rewritten.
Proposition language often excludes key fiscal information, such as whether or not adopting the new debt will increase property taxes, along with the fiscal status of the borrowing entity.
And some cities, such as Austin and Dallas, have adopted bag-bans and other nanny-state ordinances that directly fly in the face of state laws prohibiting them.
At Wednesday’s hearing, State Sen. Paul Bettencourt (R–Houston) indicated he would bring transparency legislation back before the committee next session. A related bill he sponsored (SB-1041) passed the Senate in 2015, but ultimately died in the House Calendars Committee chaired by members loyal to House Speaker Joe Straus’ coalition government of liberal Republicans and Democrats.