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Transparency Bills Heard This Week

Ender Reed
Senior Policy Advisor

 
HB 14 by Rep. Jim Pitts (R-Waxahachie) and SB 14 by Sen. Tommy Williams (R-The Woodlands) were both heard in their respective committees in the House and Senate on Monday, March 18. These bills seek to change many current county practices in an effort to bring about greater transparency in local government.

Counties are always in support of being transparent, open and accountable to the taxpayers. However, upon analysis some of the proposed changes of SB 14 and HB 14 could cause redundant reporting. Other proposed changes would create expensive mandates on local governments, or make it difficult for counties to manage growth. Below are some of the problematic areas of the bills discussed in committee.

The bills propose to make it more difficult for counties to issue certificates of obligations (CO), which are an important tool in a county’s financial toolbox. The state has a rapidly growing population and the responsibility for meeting the demands of this growth falls to local governments. As we have seen with the road infrastructure problems oil producing counties are handling, local governments need the ability to attract economically viable business interests and must maintain basic infrastructure – like roads – otherwise, business and growth in this state will be stifled.

Furthermore, the proposed prohibition on issuing certificates of obligation to finance projects that have failed to receive voter approval in a bond election closes one form of financing for “non-discretionary projects” for local governments. The best example of this practice is when a county bond election for a jail expansion fails, but the commissioners court decides to fund the jail project through COs (which don’t require voter approval) since the jail standards commission has ordered the jail to make repairs or conducted a population analysis and suggested the need for increased capacity. Obviously, this is a no-win situation for a county.

Another proposed change would mandate that counties create a website and post specific items on the website. This mandate is a direct conflict to the idea that decisions regarding how to manage the county are best left at the local level. Governing bodies should have the flexibility to provide for their communities as the situation dictates.

Furthermore, some counties do not have the technical capacity or personnel to comply with all of the required updates if the county has a website. The requirement for “continuous posting” of the political body’s financial reports on the website makes no exception for technical failures, emergencies and natural disasters. Unfortunately, networks fail, and cyber-terrorism is a reality that governmental bodies have to deal with more and more these days. The question left unanswered by the bill is what happens if a county’s website fails through no fault of the county, or if there is a security breach? Will the state pay to fix issues and provide technical assistance and cyber-security protection?

These bills also propose changes to the ballots for debt elections. The proposed ballot language is certain to cause “ballot fatigue” - voter confusion and weariness at the polls. Providing excessive amounts of information won’t make it easier for voters to make informed decisions; it often makes it harder. There may also be longer wait times to vote because of the volume of information voters would have to be read and understand.  This would be especially problematic in November general elections when turnout is higher. Making county budget and financial information available is important. But the ballot box is not the place where education should begin – education must occur before voters head to the polls.

Both bills were left pending in committee.