Local “economic development” deals must be brought out of the shadows and into public view. Basic reforms would make deals between politicians and corporations seeking a handout more transparent by subjecting them to Texas’ existing transparency laws.
In 1999, state law was changed to exempt economic development negotiations from both the Texas Open Meetings and Public Information Acts. These exemptions don’t serve the interests of taxpayers; rather, they conceal the backroom dealing between politicians and corporations who feed off them.
With no such exemption currently allowed for any other policy-making decision, it’s difficult to argue why the area most likely to breed corruption be kept secret. Then again, therein lies one possible motive.
The back and forth among policymakers in public view, so common and essential to good governance, is wholly absent when it comes to discussing how taxpayer money, land, and other assets are doled out to private corporations.
Chambers of Commerce, the Texas Municipal League, and other government-interest groups argue that “open deal-making” will place neighboring cities at a strategic disadvantage with one another. But governments don’t exist to serve the convenience of politicians or corporations seeking a taxpayer subsidy — they exist to serve Texas taxpayers.
Journalists and taxpayers alike have no access to information surrounding “eco-devo” negotiations. For this reason, the vast majority of news stories about economic development deals are done either right before or after the deal has already passed.
Politicians and corporations negotiate deals behind closed doors before the public and the press realize a deal is even pending. Watchdogs in the media and engaged citizenry are neutered — they exist simply to reports the details, unable to provide any scrutiny.
The state already gives cities outrageous flexibility when it comes to how these slush funds can be spent. Ideally, cities would not be able to hand out special tax treatment to companies with political access, as economic development handouts are often paid for directly or indirectly by other taxpayers.
But so long as they exist, at the very least, taxpayers deserve transparency in the deliberation of the potentially corruptible — and expensive — process. Prior to 1999, economic development deals were struck in full public view, a standard required of every other governing decision made by local officials.
It seems the only pain that comes with transparency is that the actions of local politicians will be visible to the taxpayers footing the tax bill. And that’s exactly the way it should be.