Local economic development deals would be brought out of the shadows and into public view if State Sens. Brian Birdwell (R-Granbury) and Konni Burton (R-Colleyville) are successful this year. Their proposed legislation would make deals between politicians and corporations more transparent by subjecting them to public accountability.
In 1999, state law was changed to exempt economic development negotiations from both the Texas Open Meetings Act and Public Information Act. Birdwell’s bill (SB 1254) would simply repeal both exemptions.
It’s unclear why exemptions were enacted fifteen years ago. They don’t serve taxpayers; rather they conceal the dealing of the politicians and corporations who feed off them. With no such exemption currently allowed for any other area of local policy-making, it’s difficult to argue why the area most likely to breed corruption and abuse be kept secret. Then again, perhaps that’s precisely the point.
Jess Fields, a Senior Public Policy Analyst with the Texas Public Policy Foundation, stressed the significance of Birdwell’s desire to return to transparent government.
“The back-and-forth among policymakers, so common and essential to the governing process, is largely absent when it comes to discussing how public money, land and other assets are doled out to private corporations.”
The economic-development establishment, the Texas Municipal League and other big government-interest groups argue that open deal making will place neighboring politicians at a strategic disadvantage with one another. But governments don’t exist to serve the convenience of politicians—they exist to serve Texans.
Fields noted, “…Journalists and regular taxpayers alike have no access to information surrounding economic development negotiations…For this reason, the vast majority of news stories about economic development deals are done either right before, between the 72-hour agenda notice and the vote itself, or even after the deal has already passed.”
Essentially, by the time the press and taxpayers realize a deal is even pending, politicians and corporations have already signed off behind closed doors. Watchdogs in the media are neutered; they exist simply to reports the details, unable to provide any real scrutiny, criticism or analysis.
The state already gives cities outrageous flexibility when it comes to the use of economic development funds. At the very least, Texans deserve transparency in the deliberation of that potentially corruptible, and expensive, process.
Prior to 1999, economic-development deals were struck in full public view. It seems the only pain experienced by returning to transparency will be felt by local politicians facing oversight from their constituents. And that’s exactly the way it should be.