In the Obama economy of trillion-dollar federal deficits, some insist that the spendaholics have completely taken over.
Susan Combs and Texas' happy taxpayers beg to differ.
Rick Perry, phenomenally successful Texas governor for a dozen years and flawed 2012 presidential candidate, called last week for revising the state constitution so that taxes could be returned to Texans when there's a surplus, as, amazingly, is the case today in spite of the contracting U.S. economy. That could mean nearly $2 billion returned to the people who own that money.
Perry gets plenty of credit for more than a decade of veto-heavy, low-tax governing that has made the Lone Star State the most regulation-friendly place in the country for private-sector employers. But eyes across the nation are increasingly focused on innovative state comptroller Combs, who in her six-year tenure has demanded transparency and accountability in seemingly every area of state spending.
In a new series of plainly written and aptly titled "Texas, It's Your Money" reports, Combs acknowledges that "Texas has fared better economically than most of the country, and we want to keep it that way."
But doing so means arming Texans with the ammunition of knowledge to prevent the state from becoming "Illinois, California or Greece, where attempts to rein decades of fiscal mismanagement are proving bitter pills to swallow."
Some states, such as New York, play the game of using unfunded state mandates to diffuse political responsibility for perpetually high property taxes. In low-tax Texas, local entities that levy property and sales taxes have multiplied dramatically over the last two decades, a ticking time bomb that could explode when times are tougher in the state.
New special-purpose districts, government units independent from counties, cities and towns, have increased by 1,900% in the case of ones that levy a sales tax, and more than 45% in the case of ones that levy a property tax.
Consequently, local sales and property taxes have "far exceeded either population or inflation growth," Combs points out.
So she has posted an online treasure house of information showing "which entities are levying sales tax and at what rate," data that are "not readily available when you are shopping."
And because there is, unfortunately, "no central source showing which entities can tax a particular piece of property," Combs is demanding that the state "require the tax assessor-collectors or chief appraisers or appraisal districts to report the tax rate information to the comptroller's office." It would then be posted online and updated at least once a year.
Combs wants similar action on all government entities' public debt, including "the debt's original stated purpose." Such information is especially relevant to debt-funded education spending. Combs has identified unjustified irregularities in the total per-student and per-square-foot costs of all construction and renovation projects.
One pre-kindergarten school built in 2005 in Houston, for instance, had a below-average per-pupil cost of less than $14,000.
But the Anita Uphaus Early Childhood Center in Austin cost more than $40,000 per pre-kindergarten student — nearly double the average. This facility features stunning stained glass, "child-like figures, child-height windows and large alphabetical letters inlaid across the front of the building," the design of which was guided by "green building and sustainable architecture principles" using "recyclable and local materials."
To fight such waste, Combs wants bond election ballots to tell voters the details of how much their taxes will go up if the government entity takes on the new debt.
We now have $16.5 trillion in federal debt. And voters re-elected a president who in his second inaugural, as the Cato Institute's Michael Tanner quipped in the National Review, "sounded as if he had suddenly discovered a magic money tree growing out behind the White House." Naturally, many wonder how the never-ending rise of big government can be fought.
Texas' pioneering fiscal policy star has a way: information for voters, and plenty of it.