Advice from Texas Comptroller Susan Combs

LIBERTY, September 7, 2013 - Our local governments more than doubled their debt load in the last decade, amassing more than $7,500 in debt for every man, woman and child in the state. Between 2001 and 2011, the outstanding debt of Texas local governments rose more than twice as fast as inflation and population growth rates combined.

New debt often is approved by a small percentage of voters, who must make vital decisions about new debt with little information about its implications. And a large share of local debt—totaling $12.7 billion since 2005—is issued through “certificates of obligation,” generally, without any voter approval.

Furthermore, it is difficult for taxpayers to learn the full scope of debt in their area. While some local debt is reported to the Texas Bond Review Board, information not reported includes bank loans and some lease-purchase arrangements. Often, detailed research in budget and financial reports is needed to gather this additional detail.

You have a right to a full and complete disclosure of public debt. All government entities should reveal all debt obligations on a public website, including the debt’s original stated purpose, the total amount of debt authorized, the issued and unissued amounts of authorized debt, spent and unspent amounts of issued debt and the per capita debt burden on taxpayers. Any ballot for new debt should be accompanied by a similar accounting.

You have a right to approve debt issued in your name. Texas should significantly narrow public governments’ authority to issue debt without voter approval, and revise the petition process to make it easier for taxpayers to compel a public vote on proposed debt.

 

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