Shaping A Government Accountable to the People
How our government collects and spends money is critically important. Tax and budget decisions are the most concrete way that communities declare priorities and balance competing values.
Unfortunately, government decisions about how to raise revenue and support public functions often fail to best advance the public interest. Too often, public subsidies, tax breaks or special deals are granted to powerful corporate interests at the taxpayers’ expense. When this happens, taxpayers are stuck with the tab, or public resources and services end up threatened.
It is not possible to ensure that government decisions are fair and efficient unless information is publicly accessible. Likewise, public officials and private companies that receive contracts and subsidies must be held accountable for delivering promised goods and services.
Transparency in government spending checks corruption, promotes fiscal responsibility, and allows for greater, more meaningful participation in our democratic system. TexPIRG Education Fund is working to advance these goals on a variety of fronts:
- Promoting public access to online information about government spending at a detailed "checkbook" level including contracts, subsidies and "off-budget" agencies. TexPIRG Education Fund's research finds that states continue to make progress toward comprehensive, one-stop, one-click transparency and accountability for state government spending, but some states are lagging and in all states there are opportunities to expand transparency to include economic development subsidies and quasi-public agencies.
- Ensuring that companies that receive public subsidies are held accountable for delivering clear benefits or required to return public dollars.
- Protecting against bad privatization deals that sell off public assets on the cheap and diminish public control of vital public structures such as toll roads, parking systems and traffic enforcement.
Citizens’ ability to understand how their tax dollars are spent is fundamental to democracy. Budget and spending transparency holds government officials accountable for making smart decisions, checks corruption, and provides citizens an opportunity to affect how government dollars are spent.
State and local governments spend billions of dollars every year on economic development programs in the form of forgone tax revenue and direct cash grant payments to corporations in an effort to stoke investment and job creation in a particular city, state or industry.
A review of economic development subsidy reporting in all 50 states finds that a majority of states fail to meet minimum standards of online transparency, leaving residents, watchdogs and public officials in the dark about key public expenditures. States should shine light on economic development subsidies by requiring the online publication of key transparency reports and inclusion of economic development spending in the state’s online checkbook portal to meet the expectations of citizens seeking information in the 21st century.
Economic development subsidies – be they tax exemptions, credits, or direct cash grant payments – are a form of public spending, but are rarely held to the same transparency standards as other government expenditures.
Texas received a “C-” for making critical information about how governments are subsidizing business projects with taxpayer dollars readily available to the public online, according to a new report from TexPIRG Education Fund and Frontier Group. Following the Money 2019, the organization’s tenth evaluation of online government spending transparency, gives 17 states a failing grade, while only four states received a grade of “B” or higher.
Texas received an “C-” grade because it lost points for having no laws requiring either a grants report or an online portal database that includes its economic development payments. On the other hand, Texas got full credit for its annually published tax expenditure report.
"As taxpayers, we should be able to see how government spends our money down to the dime," said Bay Scoggin, TexPIRG Education Fund Director. "That includes the billions of dollars that state and local governments give away each year to lure businesses into their backyards."
Citizens’ ability to understand how their tax dollars are spent is fundamental to democracy. Budget and spending transparency, holds government officials accountable for making smart decisions, checks corruption, and provides citizens with an opportunity to affect how government dollars are spent. “Special districts” are a type of government agency that exist outside of traditional forms of general purpose local or state governments, and serve key governmental functions such as public transit or housing. However, special districts are poorly understood by the public and often do business without adhering to modern standards of government budget or spending transparency. The lack of transparency and accountability of many special districts has caused concern among some state agencies and government watchdogs, as it can contribute to an atmosphere conducive to lowered efficiency and potential misconduct.
The report graded each state’s transparency website from “A” to “F” based on its content and user-friendliness. This year, for the first time, we worked with focus groups to see how well the ordinary Americans could navigate the sites. With that new standard, most states’ grades dropped from our previous report.
“When states are transparent about how they spend tax dollars, we all win: the state saves money, it can operate more efficiently and effectively, and citizens can feel more confident in their government,” said Bay Scoggin, TexPIRG Ed Fund State Director, “That’s why we are so pleased to highlight Comptroller Hegar's leadership on this issue.”
Texas Public Interest Research Group Education Fund will release a new report, “Following the Money 2018: How the 50 States Rate in Providing Online Access to Government Spending Data,” evaluating each state on how well it provides spending information online and assigning them letter grades from “A” to “F.” The report will reveal Texas’ letter grade, compare its public disclosure of spending information to other states, and provide recommendations for improvements.
Transparency in state spending increases accountability, reduces corruption, and promotes greater effectiveness and fiscal responsibility. This is TexPIRG Education Fund’s eighth annual ranking of states’ progress toward checkbook-level spending transparency. Several states have made significant progress since the last report, but the most transparent states maintain user-friendly and searchable transparency sites and provide the public with information about types of expenditures that otherwise receive little public scrutiny, like spending on economic development subsidies and off-budget agencies.
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