BILL WOULD INCREASE DEBT TRANSPARENCY
(AUSTIN) —Taxpayers would have more ways to keep tabs on local government taxes and debt through a bill offered before a Senate Finance subcommittee on Monday. The Subcommittee on Fiscal Matters heard a bill from Senator Tommy Williams of the Woodlands that would require local government entities to publish and submit a variety of reports aimed at clearing up confusion around local tax policies. "With so many taxes and taxing entities, it's very difficult for the average taxpayer to determine who is taxing them and how much they are being taxed cumulatively," he said.
Comptroller Susan Combs testified before the committee in support of the bill. She said that while state debt in Texas is very well controlled, local debt rates rank the state second among the 10 most populous states. According to a report compiled by Combs' office, local debt works out to about $7500 per capita in Texas, with the number of special taxing entities authorized to levy taxes exploding 1900 percent since 1993. Combs told the committee that voters need to be better informed about who they owe taxes to and why. "In the forty town halls I did across the state, not a single person in any one of those town halls had a clue to what they already owed for any entity," she said.
Williams' bill, SB 14, would require every county tax office to submit to the Comptroller a list of all local taxing entities in their jurisdiction, which the Comptroller would then post on a public web page. Additionally, every entity with taxing authority would be required to post a list of their annual expenditures and revenues on the authority's website. Special tax districts would have to conduct periodic self-evaluations to determine whether or not the purpose for which they were formed and the taxes they levy are still necessary.
In terms of debt transparency, SB 14 would require more information on the ballot when a local taxing entity holds a bond election. The ballot would have to tell voters how much debt the entity currently carries and how much approving the bond will increase debt service costs. The bill also requires that public school districts publish publicly a complete inventory of all school facilities and report on the cost of new construction and renovations to existing buildings.
Many county tax officials appeared to offer concerns about the broad reach of the bill. While all supported increased transparency and voter education, they told Senators why certain provisions might be unnecessary in their areas or even impossible to implement without great cost to the county. In order to work with these officials, the bill was left pending before the subcommittee.
The Senate will reconvene Tuesday, March 19 at 11 a.m.