James Russell Wiggins, the late editor of the Washington Post, once said that “the more that government becomes secret, the less it remains free.” Thankfully, Texas is leading the way toward opening the workings of its governments, particularly when it comes to how they spend your tax dollars.
Last month, Collin County unveiled the Financial Transparency Project, becoming the first county in American history to post its finances online. Praised by local taxpayers and media alike, the county’s website works to de-mystify just how tax dollars are being spent.
Financial transparency in Collin County goes well beyond the mere posting of county expenditures. The site also features five-year tax and expenditure summaries, budget analyses, quarterly statistical data, and a Citizens Report. As the first of its kind, Collin County’s transparency project takes an enormous first step in the right direction.
And earlier this month, Smith County commissioners voted unanimously to open its county checkbook to public scrutiny.
To many, local government spending represents the next great frontier of “untamed” American bureaucracy. The commissioners’ courts in Collin and Smith Counties have set an outstanding example for the other 252 Texas counties.
Not to be outdone, state officials at the Legislative Budget Board (LBB) also announced their own transparency initiative last month. Taxpayers now have the ability to see each agency’s Legislative Appropriation Request (LAR) as they are turned in simply by going to the LBB’s website.
While LARs have long been available to the public, Sen. Dan Patrick of Houston deserves credit for convincing the board that taxpayers should be able to find these public documents on a single page rather than having to divine where these are stored on each individual agency’s website.
Having LARs in one central location allows taxpayers to more easily review the financial demands made by each agency and how the agency intends to use taxpayer funds. Interested taxpayers should contact their legislators after reviewing an agency’s LAR and offer recommendations of their own to reduce the cost of government.
State and local government efforts to enhance transparency have been impressive, but not every branch of Texas government is welcoming the newfound trend. Too many school districts have been loath to open up their “fiefdoms” for taxpayer scrutiny despite their simultaneous demands for more tax dollars.
One need not look further than Beaumont Independent School District (BISD) for an example. Last November, BISD Superintendent Carrol Thomas made repeated promises that the district would become more open and responsive to taxpayers after voters approved a $389 million bond initiative. Fast forward to today, and it’s not uncommon for taxpayers to see BISD and district attorney’s office in the same sentence.
Recent reports from The Beaumont Examiner may shed light on why the district is stonewalling repeated taxpayer requests for documents protected under the Freedom of Information Act. According to the Examiner, BISD awarded W.B. Construction and Sons Inc. the bid to help construct 3 new elementary schools – despite the fact that it was founded by and, for all intensive purposes, is being run by a convicted felon. As an added taxpayer gouge, it is reported that the firm failed to turn in the lowest bid. As of August 26, the district had yet to provide that information despite repeated requests.
Instances such as this serve as a reminder that although Texans have made tremendous progress in the fight against waste, corruption, and abuse in government through the use of financial transparency, we still have much to accomplish.
Armed with 21st century technology, the time has come for every level of Texas government – state, counties, cities, and school districts – to fully reveal themselves to those footing the bill. Taxpayers deserve, and should demand, more authority in how government spends tax dollars. Only then can we return the reins of power back to rightful owner: the taxpayer.
James Quintero is a fiscal policy analyst at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a non-profit, free-market research institute based in Austin.