Tell the Truth Texas (http://tellthetruthtexas.org/) is a website created and maintained by the Texas Comptroller to provide information to Texas voters about the relative level of debt financing of counties, cities, school districts, and special law districts. In part, the website attempts to fill a gap in statistical information-gathering by providing an at-least-partial index of pending bond elections, along with colorful interactive maps of relative debt loads among various political subdivisions.
This is the sort of thing I should be cheering on, right? I mean, I’ve railed on about invisible little special-law districts and the crazy way that public works projects get funded in Texas, right? Right? I mean, my distaste for the shadowy demimonde of special law districts is at the heart and center of my raison d’etre, or something like that.
So why am I not crowing from the rooftops about Tell the Truth Texas? Rather than shouting, “Yay! More data about bond elections!” I’m left mumbling, “Sort-of-yay, I think, with involuted and complex caveats about intent, tone, and timing.”
Here’s how I feel about bond elections, and about elections in general:
(1) Every voter should know about every upcoming election, and have access to as much objective analysis as possible about issues, candidates, and consequences, and
(2) Every government should open its books, meetings, directives, and agendas to the disinfecting light of full disclosure.
BUT … but what?
(3) Debt financing is not an inherently dirty or questionable method of government financing.
And it’s not that the Comptroller ever says that debt financing is dirty – the implication is much more subtle. But “Tell the Truth Texas” is provocative in some ways.
The first line of the “About this Site” page sets the tone:
Financial transparency is a goal governments generally embrace in principle, but not always in practice.
Okay. Fair enough. We have a State Auditor and a Comptroller (and we used to have a State Treasurer) expressly because governments don’t always tell us where our money is going. And there is something entertainingly disruptive about a state elected official more-or-less explicitly alleging that our government lies to us.
But as part of the site’s mission statement, there’s this:
Since January 2007, the Texas Comptroller’s office has been a tireless advocate for financial transparency at all levels of government. We’ve opened the state’s books for taxpayers, shining a light on the ins and outs of revenue and debt that affect the people who actually pay the bills. And we’re not stopping now.
Our local governments need the same sort of sunshine. Local finances account for more than half of all Texas state and local taxes and four-fifths of its government debt — $200.2 billion at the end of fiscal 2013. Local spending and debt are skyrocketing, as is the sheer number of government bodies that levy taxes and issue debt in your name.
Hmm. Local spending and debt are skyrocketing! Outrage! Entities are levying taxes and issuing debt in my name. Suspicious! The locals are spending money! Who will save us?
Except … isn’t it at least theoretically possible that local governments might be borrowing and spending because they have to? Could one at least float the hypothetical argument that the State is engaged in a bit of sophistry with respect to spending? As state government programs are cut and discontinued, isn’t there some chance that local schools, cities, hospitals, utility districts, and others find themselves having to increase their spending just to stave off the impending collapse of Western civilization? I mean, not to engage in alarmist rhetoric, or anything.
I’m glad to hear that the Comptroller has been championing our public interest since 2007, which happens to coincide with the start of Susan Combs’ first term in that office. Does that mean that the Comptroller’s office wasn’t opening the State’s books prior to that date?
And … in the spirit of the adage about not criticizing the mote in someone else’s eye, lest they point out the beam in one’s own, it would be interesting if the Comptroller’s office in the midst of all this truth-telling would tell the story of the Self-Directed Semi-Independent Agency Project Act (formerly at Article 8930, Texas Revised Civil Statutes, and now codified at Chapter 472, Texas Government Code).
The Self-Directed Semi-Independent Agency Project Act isn’t something that Susan Combs created, and (except to the extent that it is symptomatic of more general trends in … let us say … creative … state budget accounting) (see, e.g., self-directed semi-independent agencies like the Texas Real Estate Commission, the Texas Department of Banking, the Texas Department of Savings and Mortgage Lending, the Office of the Consumer Credit Commissioner, etc.), it’s pretty small potatoes in the context of state finances generally.
But it is a weird, convoluted legislative bookkeeping workaround that for many years was hidden under the title of “Boat Dealers” in the civil statutes, and that redefines three state regulatory agencies (the State Board of Public Accountancy, the Board of Professional Engineers, and the Board of Architectural Examiners) as … what? As three magically not-state-regulatory agencies, reducing the State’s budget and payroll on paper, if not in reality.
Yeah, it’s a little mean of me to passive-aggressively criticize the Comptroller for editorial tone vis-a-vis bond elections by making fun of state legislative tricks of opaque budgeting – in the end, the trains all have to run on time, regardless of who signs the checks.
But I’m illustrating how important context is – it is unfair to use state agency resources to play to voters’ innate distrust of deficit spending without explaining why that deficit spending occurs, and an accusatory tone (Skyrocketing debt!) makes “Tell the Truth Texas” look more like a Susan Combs campaign website, and less like a neutral, objective online resource.