Texas ranks highly when it comes to letting taxpayers know how state government spends its money, according to a new report from the U.S. Public Interest Research Group.
The report, called “Following the Money 2014,” named Texas the fourth most transparent state in providing online access to government expenditure information, behind Indiana, Oregon and Florida. Texas’ rank fell slightly from last year, when it topped the list, but the state remains a “leader” in financial transparency, according to the report’s authors.
“Texas has become a pioneer in financial transparency due to our hard work,” Texas Comptroller Susan Combs said in response to the report. “Taxpayers pay the freight for state and local government spending decisions, and confidence erodes if citizens are unable to easily access information on expenditures and finances.”
U.S. PIRG credits Texas and seven other states with creating “user-friendly websites that provide visitors with accessible information.” An open-government website operated by the Texas comptroller’s office, texastransparency.org, received special praise for apparently saving the agency about $5 million in administrative costs in its first two years.
“It’s actually quite fantastic,” Sara Smith, program director for Texas PIRG, said of the website. “All this information is really accessible to the average Joe.”
Texas received a grade of A- from the report’s authors, earning 91 points out of a possible 100. The state lost most of its points for incomplete information about private corporations that receive tax breaks from economic development subsidies.
Phineas Baxandall, a senior analyst with U.S. PIRG who contributed to the report, called Texas a “longstanding leader” in online access to spending information. But he said access to information was inconsistent when it came to state subsidy programs. For example, a tax credit program for film, television and video game production failed to meet basic transparency guidelines outlined in the report. But online disclosures related to the Texas Economic Development Act — better known as “313 agreements” — met all the report’s criteria, demonstrating that “full transparency is possible when it comes to public subsidies,” Baxandall said.
Combs spokeswoman Lauren Willis said increasing transparency has been central to the comptroller’s mission. Recently, she said, the agency posted information online about the debts owed by local government entities around the state.
“Transparency is of the utmost importance,” Willis said. “Susan believes it’s your money and you should know what happens to it.”
Smith said Texas’ extensive subsidy programs made financial accountability all the more important in the state.
“We give a lot of tax breaks to large corporations,” she said. “Our budget is so conservative when it comes to public spending for social welfare programs, it’s important that we can track the money we’re actually spending and we can know who it’s going to.”