Educate voters at the ballot box on debt propositions

By James Quintero

texas debtVoters aren’t provided with enough information at the ballot box to make an informed decision on debt, and it’s helping to create a tidal wave of red ink.

Currently, Texans are given only two pieces of information when they vote on a debt proposition: the principal amount to be borrowed and an often vague description of its purpose. With so little detail, it’s simply not realistic to think that people — busy working, raising kids and running their households — will know all that they should about every city, county, school district and special district bond that’s up for a vote. Allowing the public to remain in the dark on debt has not been without consequence.

Local government debt in fiscal year 2014 soared to more than $333 billion, a jump of almost $35 billion since fiscal year 2009. With over one-third of $1 trillion owed, Texas’ local debt per capita is close to an astounding $12,500 per Texan.

Past trends suggest that, absent reform, Texas’ emerging local debt crisis is likely to get worse before it gets better.

Consider that from 2001 to 2011, local debt rose by almost 125 percent. Over that same time, population and inflation grew by just 53 percent, according to the Texas comptroller’s report “Your Money and Local Debt.” Local debt outstripped population and inflation by a factor of more than 2-to-1.

T at Arlingto nIf too little information is contributing to too much debt, then voters should be given more information at the point of decision-making, in the voting booth. Not so much information and detail that you overwhelm the voter or make the ballot unappealingly long; but not so little that voters don’t understand the implications or context of their decision either.

Ideally, each new debt proposition should include three key pieces of information along with any ballot language — the total principal and interest cost of the proposed bond, the amount of existing debt held by the asking entity, and the expected tax impact should the proposal succeed. Armed with this bit of information, voters could be expected to have a much better understanding of where their community is financially, where it might be headed and the cost to get there.

Asking that voters have this level of detail before saying yes or no to a million- or billion-dollar proposition is nothing extraordinary. In fact, it’s just common sense, and it’s nothing that you wouldn’t expect someone buying a house, a car or any other big-ticket item to already know.

Several bills filed by both Republicans and Democrats are making their way through the Legislature, promising to bring some much-needed transparency to the ballot box.

In the Texas Senate, four bills — Senate Bills 102, 399, 619 and 1041 — would each in their own way educate voters at the ballot box on debt propositions. In the Texas House, three ballot-box transparency bills — House Bills 134, 1182 and 1380 — recently received a committee hearing and await a vote.

Fiscal conservatives alarmed by the size and growth of local government debt should be encouraged by this new legislature’s widespread recognition of the problem and by their efforts to address it. If Texans are ever to get a handle on the problem of local debt, it has to start with properly educating the public.

Quintero is the director of the Center for Local Governance at the Texas Public Policy Foundation;

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