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Government Transparency and a new Web resource, “Tell the Truth Texas”

June 2013

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INTRO by Leticia Torres:
Welcome to this Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts Podcast, produced by the Communications Division.  I’m Leticia Torres. Our topic today is Government Transparency and a new Web resource, “Tell the Truth Texas”. Our interview is with Susan Combs, Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts. Welcome and let’s start by discussing government transparency and its importance to taxpayers. How did your government transparency initiative get started?

Combs: I got started about transparency because when we learned that the national debt was this eye popping number of 16 trillion. I thought well what are we doing in Texas and how successful are we in managing debt? And what I found was that local debt was growing faster than population. I also found that local debt in Texas was second only to New York in the amount of debt we had per capita. So then I did town halls. I wanted to know how much people really knew about this. Since the press was full of Washington did they know about what was happening in their backyard? So I did these 40 town halls and in every single one I asked a question. Raise your hand if when you go into the ballot box and somebody is asking you to vote on new debt do you know what you already owe? And there would be a long pause. And in every single one not a human knew how much they already owed. And in fact what I discovered was how hard it was to find out and that prompted me to think about well one of my jobs as chief financial officer is to give people information so they can manage their finances. If they’re financially sound and not worried then they’re going to engage in commerce and they’re going to start businesses and they’re going to feel free to borrow money themselves. But if they’re concerned about the amount of public debt that, not the state of Texas, but the cities and counties and school districts and hospitals and MUDs and everybody they’re putting on if they’re frightened and they don’t have confidence then they’re not going to engage in the essential business activity we need to make this state grow.     

Torres: Why should government transparency matter to taxpayers?

Combs: What I found was interesting was when I asked the people who want to impose the debt. What do they think about the taxpayer? Did they think the taxpayer ought to know? Almost invariable the answer was, “Well it will confuse them.” And I’m thinking what do you mean it will confuse them? So they’re too dumb to know but smart enough to pay was essentially what they were told. Basically just go ahead. Trust me. Sign on this loan document which is what you’re doing when you’re voting for something. You’re signing a loan document. You’re agreeing to pay for this $80 million, $200 million, $400 million, and when you go to buy a car or a sofa or anything else on time, this sort of consumer protection act gives you all kinds of protections and information. We have virtually none of that in public local debt and that struck me as stunning and something that needed to be fixed. 

Torres: Well, isn’t this information already available to taxpayers?

Combs: No it’s not. In fact that’s what’s really interesting. Now some do. Let me be fair. There are some cities and counties and schools that do a pretty good job. But what we were surprised at was how hard it was for us.  We have super-duper researchers. We had people going to dig through data bases in particular there’s a big bunch of information at the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality about MUDs. And what MUDs are are ways for developers to go ahead and put in water and waste water. And all that’s important because they may not be in a city and they don’t have city services. But it’s about nine steps down. It’s very very hard to find that. So if you live in a MUD. You bought a house. You’re supposed to be told when you buy the house. The seller is supposed to let you know. But a lot of them didn’t seem to know and it was hard to find out where the MUD was so we’re going to put that online. School construction, really hard to find out. That surprised me as well and there was a lot of resistance by schools to give you the information about how much a school building cost per square foot or how many students will be in the school so what is that per head? When you are thinking about buying a home, you look in the neighborhood and you always ask yourself well gosh how many dollars per square foot do they want? Is it 90 bucks a square foot?  A hundred and two or some $200? If my little house, you know1500 square feet is $300 a square foot and yours next door which looks fantastic is only 105. Something is not right. And you want to have a way to do a meaningful comparison. The difference is the public is paying for the decisions made by these folks who build stuff. And you want them to do it in the most thoughtful transparent way. Maybe I’m an architect. Maybe I’m sitting here listening to this and I’m an architect. I can tell you how to do this thing, a great school for these wonderful children. But let’s focus on brains and not so much on bricks.  

Torres: Why the internet? Why have you chosen the internet as the tool to share information with taxpayers?

Combs: The internet is the new public square. You know you go back to the history of this country and people. You talk about giving a stump speech they meant on a cut off tree stump. You stood up on a stump so that people could see you. Well, now the only way people can see you is on the internet. We have about 25 and a half million people in this state. You can’t reach them any other way but the internet. The second real important point is it allows you to access information when you are available. If a lot of these families and individuals work long hours then they got to go home and have supper and feed their kids. They probably can’t go to a city council meeting or school district board meeting. And for anybody in public service to say they have to come to these meetings, that’s disrespectful and it’s not reflective of the reality of today. The internet is where it is.  

Torres: You stress the need for transparency information on local government and even created the Leadership Circle program to recognize those governments that are striving to meet a high standard for financial transparency online. Why is that important to you?

Combs: It’s really important for the public trust. You have to have the public believing you’re hiding nothing and so these things like Leadership Circle, etcetera are a way to say, “At a boy. At a girl,” to the folks that are doing this information.  By the way it’s also efficient for them. If you need to respond all the time to open records request, well here it’s already out there. The information is there. You’re saying, if you run one of these governmental entities, you’re saying we’re here. Open our books, sunshine. Please have confidence because we have confidence in you and it’s part of the civil contract basically, I think, between the individual and the governing entity. Mutual trust based on mutual respect and transparency.    

Torres: Have local governments been forthcoming with information?

Combs: Pretty, it depends, pretty much. We had some push back when we first started this. You know, what are you telling us to do? I was surprised in the legislative session how many local governments got irritated. We already do this. It’s an unfunded mandated. But wait a minute. It’s not an unfunded mandate. I think it’s your obligation to tell people. The other thing was was that it was surprising how cheap it is to do this. If you don’t have a website you can go on Facebook and in five minutes for free create a website. I did it in five minutes, test city two. You can post on the Facebook page for free all of your financial reports. All of that stuff they have the capacity to do that. So it doesn’t cost much. Per month it’s you know six eight ten bucks a month. I think that’s the least, that when you believe in an open society, an open government, I think that’s a reasonable thing to do. So a lot of them have been great. We’ve had hundreds of cities that have been great.  But we can still do more and we need to because society is constantly evolving and the access points need to be widened.

Torres: When can we expect to see the Tell the Truth Texas website to be updated with financial information from local governments? 

Combs: Well the website, www.TelltheTruthTexas.org, it’s up. We expect by the end of summer or September to have a lot more information. What we’re trying to do now is to partner up with other entities or state agencies that have the information so we can pull that information in and make it easy. And we want people to respond to us, hey, I think it was a little hard to find that particular item. We’ll be responsive to that. We want to make it so simple for you, the Texan, to find everything out. So we hope to have the internet, the site, pretty good speed by the fall but we’re going to keep adding through the spring, next summer. It’s going to take us probably overall about a year to get everything up that we want. But I’m very excited about it. I think it’s going to be a lot of fun.    

Torres: Thank you Comptroller Combs for participating in today’s podcast. To learn more about local government finances in our state, please visit www.tellthetruthtexas.org.

Closing: Media requesting an interview, please call the Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts Communications Division at (512) 463-4070. This podcast was brought to by the Texas Comptroller’s Office.

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