This commentary originally appeared in the Midland Reporter-Telegram on March 25, 2015.
This week is Sunshine Week, a national initiative aimed at promoting the importance of government transparency. There are few more critical issues, and people from across the political spectrum agree that transparency is foundational to good governance.
Texans value transparency so much that two laws exist specifically to ensure that government is open to the people it serves — the Texas Open Meetings Act and the Public Information Act.
The Open Meetings Act requires that governing bodies meet in public to make decisions, deliberate on policy issues and take votes. The Public Information Act requires that documents produced by governments and elected officials be made available on request.
Together, these open government laws reflect the strong desire of Texans to know what their government is doing, how it makes its decisions, and why. For the vast majority of policy decisions, they are in full effect, allowing the public to see what their governments are up to.
However, in one area specifically — economic development — these laws are not in effect. That’s because economic development is exempted from the Open Meetings and the Public Information Acts.
Economic development, the process by which governments offer incentives to businesses to relocate or expand, has been in use in some form or another in Texas since the 1970s. In 1987, economic development incentives offered directly by governments were specifically allowed by the passage of an amendment to the Texas Constitution. Economic development agreements often see the use of such incentives as tax abatements, grants of cash and land and sales tax rebates.
In 1999, economic development was exempted from the transparency laws. Buried in a bill full of other more mundane changes, Sections 551.087 of the Open Meetings Act and 552.131 of the Public Information Act, respectively, were created.
These exceptions allowed economic development decisions to move behind closed doors, and that’s exactly what happened. Now, few residents know much about the economic development activities undertaken by their local governments, because most of it is done entirely in executive session meetings closed to the public.
Journalists, too, are left in the dark about these deals. There usually aren’t news stories published until either right before or possibly even after the deals actually pass, because outside of the 72-hour posting requirement for the meeting in which the final vote is scheduled, no other notice is required.
The problems that this creates for government accountability are obvious. Most public policy decisions are made in open meetings where residents can watch their policymakers discuss and deliberate upon the matters at hand.
Why should economic development be treated any differently? The people have a right to know where their tax dollars are going, and to watch the deliberation of their elected officials on important matters such as these.
To that end, several bills have been filed in the Texas Legislature — Senate Bills 434, 558, and 1254 — which would repeal one or both of the exceptions to the transparency laws that keep economic development behind closed doors.
These bills wouldn’t end economic development. A staffer, or a couple of elected officials not comprising a quorum of their governing body, could still negotiate with business prospects outside of a public meeting.
But the decision would have to be made in public, just like virtually everything else. Texans would suddenly have a better idea of what was going on in their government. The press would have more opportunities to inform the public about economic development agreements, too.
It’s time for Texans to stand up for transparency and accountability in government. In keeping with the spirit of Sunshine Week, the Texas Legislature should look for every opportunity to improve how government serves the people.
Transparency in the realm of economic development would be a good place to start.
The Hon. 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].