A quartet of the most powerful legislators in Texas filed bills Thursday to make available to the public detailed financial information from most local taxing entities and pension systems across the state.
Senate bills 14 and 13 and their identical House counterparts establish, at the request of state Comptroller Susan Combs, new requirements for the posting of public debt, unfunded liabilities, borrowing and project costs on websites maintained by state and local agencies.
“People need to know what their government is doing, and how it spends their money,” Combs said in a statement she issued after a press conference announcing the filing of the bills. “We need to implement common-sense changes that put vital information about government spending and debt in front of the public.”
SB 14, drafted by Sen. Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, and Rep. Jim Pitts, R- Waxahachie, commits the Comptroller to maintaining tax rate information for every political body collecting a sales or use tax in the state, updated by the assessors and collectors for those bodies.
Williams is the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee and a member of its committee on Open Government. Pitts is the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.
The state’s Bond Finance Office would post on a website a list of all outstanding local securities and schedules for their repayment. In turn, the issuers of local securities would submit reports of their activities to the state.
Under SB 14, the public would get more detailed information about the issuing of bonds, the rationale for their issuance and a tally of outstanding debt incurred by the bonds.
Local political bodies would be expected to file annual reports detailing all of their funds and their outstanding debt obligations. These reports would be posted on websites maintained by all cities, school districts and special taxing districts.
Once every three years each special taxing district in the state would be expected to prepare a report defending its existence and hold a public hearing to discuss the assessment.
The bill would also require school districts to create or to include on their websites detailed information about school facilities, enrollment, estimates of projected costs for new school projects and the current annual financial report.
"When we write the budget each session, we require transparency and access to information,” Pitts said in a prepared statement Thursday. “Texas taxpayers deserve the same level of transparency and openness, and House Bill 14 will deliver just that.”
Senate Bill 13, written by Sen. Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock, and Rep. Bill Callegari, R-Houston, calls on the state Pension Review Board to maintain a website for the financial information for every public pension plan in the state.
Duncan is the chairman of the State Affairs Committee and a member of the Finance Committee. Callegari is the chairman of the House Pensions Committee.
The bill would require from all pension systems, including the state’s two largest, the Employees Retirement System of Texas and the Teacher Retirement System of Texas, financial reports that would include:
- Net investment returns for each of the most recent 10 fiscal years
- Net rate of return for 1,3, 10 and 30-year periods
- Net rate of return from the founding of the pension plan
- Current and future anticipated rate of return on investments.
Texas Watchdog has reported on in detail concerns with the health of pensions plans in the state and nationally.
To that end, the Pension Review Board would be expected to produce a study of the overall health of public retirement plans in Texas and present its findings to the Legislature by Sept. 1, 2014.
“It is important for taxpayers to feel confident that public pensions in Texas are being managed properly to ensure long-term financial health,” Duncan said in a statement Thursday. “Senate Bill 13 aims to give citizens the information they need to feel secure about public pensions.”
Talmadge Heflin, director of the Center for Fiscal Policy at the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation, said he was particularly pleased the bills focused on opening the financial affairs of schools and pensions.
“Texas is once again at the forefront of the transparency movement, pushing for the sort of good government reforms that will give Texans more information, more choice and more freedom,” Heflin said. “Among other things, these two bills would let Texans know who’s taxing them and why, require local governments to prepare basic financial reports, and put all this information online.”
Max Patterson, executive director for the Texas Association of Public Employee Retirement Systems, issued a statement Thursday saying the direction from the Comptroller’s office was the right one.
“There may be some fine-tuning we’d like to see with the fees that are indicated in the first drafts of the bill, but we will work with the comptroller on that or other matters that come up with our members,” Patterson said.
Contact Mark Lisheron at 512-299-2318 or firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @marktxwatchdog.
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Photo of money by flickr user 401(K)2012, used via a Creative Commons license.