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AUSTIN - Texas leads the nation in ensuring transparency for special purpose districts, according to “Following the Money 2017: Governing in Shadows,” a new report by the Texas Public Interest Research Group (TexPIRG) Education Fund. The report analyzed 79 special districts across the country, including five in Texas, and found that several districts in the Lone Star State are leading the pack when it comes to transparency, with three of five districts earning “A”s.
“Special districts play an important role in public life, providing valuable services,” said Stephanie Carter with TexPIRG Education Fund. “However, they often fall off the map when it comes to transparency. Several Texas special districts and the Comptroller are proactive in ensuring the work they do is transparent to the public, but there is still a lot of work to be done.”
|Port of Houston Authority||A|
|Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County||A|
|North Texas Tollway Authority||A-|
|Lower Colorado River Authority||D|
|Jefferson County Drainage District 6||F|
In Texas, which has more than 2,600 special districts, the Comptroller of Public Accounts offers the Transparency Stars program for local government entities. Stars are available in five financial transparency areas, including Contracts and Procurement, and Debt Obligations. The program also requires governments to have a dedicated section of their website for financial information, and to have at least two downloadable datasets.
“My office created the Transparency Stars program to incentivize greater transparency amongst local governments because it is paramount for taxpayers to have access to spending data and other financial information, and it must be in a useful format,” said Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar. “I’d like to commend the Port of Houston and the MTA of Harris County for getting high honors in this year’s PIRG report, and leading the way for special purpose districts when it comes to financial transparency.”
“We are indeed gratified to be recognized by TexPIRG as the top special district in terms of online financial transparency,” said Janiece Longoria, Chairman of the Port of Houston Authority. “Our organization is committed to transparency and accountability. Port Houston plays a vital role in facilitating navigation and commerce as the local sponsor of the Houston Ship Channel. As owner and operator of the eight public terminals along the channel, we strive to assure that funds generated from operations and from local taxpayers are used wisely for the best return on investment, and in support of our legislative mandate to create jobs and economic opportunity for the region, the state and the nation.”
Special districts are government entities established by a citizen vote or other legislation. They provide a specific service or set of related services for a designated area that would otherwise typically be provided by a government entity. Such districts are defined by their ability to exercise significant fiscal autonomy, including drafting their own budgets separate from the state or local government’s legislative review process. In 2013, the last year for which data was available, special districts in Texas managed well over $12.8 billion. These numbers are conservative because only a fraction of special districts in each state actually report to the U.S. Census.
Nationally, special district spending transparency is lagging. Of the 79 special districts we reviewed, only seven special districts, including the three leading Texas districts, had a detailed spending checkbooks available online. These checkbooks allow citizens to see how their tax money is spent, dollar by dollar.
Quasi-public and semi-independent government bodies, like special districts, tend to lag behind the transparency standards that state governments are beginning to achieve. Last year, the Texas government earned an A- for their spending transparency portal. The state has created a “Transparency Stars” program, which recognizes local governments which go “above and beyond in their transparency efforts”. All three top Texas districts earned at least one star.
The report recommends that special districts prioritize establishing an online checkbook database of their spending. This could be as simple as an excel document, or could be as complex as uploading data to the Comptroller’s database. However, it is checkbook level spending information that most informs how special districts operate, and can most efficiently decrease costs and waste and increase public confidence and engagement.
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