This commentary originally appeared in the Waco Tribune-Herald on March 15, 2015.
Few political issues more quickly unite Texans than transparency in government. Texas taxpayers want to be able to see just what their elected officials are up to, especially when it involves spending their hard-earned money.
Because of this, Texas has transparency laws that shine sunlight on much of what government does, including ensuring that governing bodies meet in public and make decisions in public.
But what if I told you that when it comes to economic development agreements, the rules just don’t apply? Deals are regularly struck behind closed doors between elected officials and private corporations.
It sounds unbelievable, but in fact it’s true. The Texas Open Meetings Act, which requires public meetings, and the Public Information Act, which requires public access to government documents, simply don’t apply to anything surrounding economic development.
The reason for this is that these laws each have exceptions for economic development (in Sections 551.087 and 552.131 of the Government Code, if you wish to look for yourself). For virtually every other policymaking area, however, no such exceptions exist.
In practice what this means is that negotiations, deliberations, and all information related to cutting economic development deals are kept behind closed doors in “executive session.”
One significant effect of these unusual exceptions is that they make the decision-making process far more secretive than it is for almost any other public policy matter. When governing bodies finally hold the public vote on these agreements, there’s frequently little discussion.
The back-and-forth among policymakers, so common and essential to the governing process, is largely absent when it comes to discussing how public money, land and other assets are doled out to private corporations. So too is the public input that most other major local government decisions are accorded.
Additionally, journalists and regular taxpayers alike have no access to the information surrounding economic development negotiations, thanks to the exception in the Public Information Act. For this reason, the vast majority of news stories about economic development deals are done either right before, between the 72-hour agenda notice and the vote itself, or even after the deal has already passed.
The press, whose ability to scrutinize government is so important that “freedom of the press” found its way into the First Amendment to the Constitution, is unable to serve as a watchdog for taxpayers on economic development deals.
Economic development has been going on since the 1970s, but these exceptions to Texas’ transparency laws were only created in 1999. They were buried in a bill full of other more mundane changes to the laws and few outside of local government officials and employees even know that they exist.
That’s why they have never attracted the attention of Texas taxpayers. Until now.
Senate Bill 1254, which was recently filed, aims to correct this bad policy by returning economic development decisions back into the sunlight. No longer would these anti-transparency provisions so thoroughly hide Texans from seeing “how the sausage is made” when it comes to how their money is handed out to corporations for the purposes of economic development.
Whatever your stance on these incentives, they shouldn’t be treated any differently than the rest of the public policy process. These exceptions to our most basic transparency laws do irreparable harm to the accountability that Texans expect from their government at all levels, and have for the past decade and a half.
If SB 1254 passes, the Texas Open Meetings Act and the Public Information Act will once again matter to an entire realm of government policy that spends millions upon millions of our tax dollars. There is no reason why Texans should be kept in the dark about something so important.
Jess Fields is the senior policy analyst in the Center for Local Governance at the Texas Public Policy Foundation and a former College Station city councilman. He may be reached at [email protected].