Transparency buzz elicits some action at the Capitol

By Tim Eaton
Austin American-Statesman Staff
Originally published February 9, 2013

Should Texans know how much the state pays lawmakers in retirement? Is it OK for private foundations to supplement the salaries of state workers? Would government work better if voters knew how much debt it had before they are asked to approve more?

These and other questions about government transparency have been bouncing around the state Capitol in recent weeks, and lawmakers are beginning to take some steps to address them.

Bills were filed last week in the Texas House and Senate to shed light on opaque portions of state government, but perhaps the most high-profile effort for greater transparency is going on in the House, where Speaker Joe Straus has formed his Select Committee on Transparency in State Agency Operations.

“Overarching all this is the lack of trust in government,” Straus said in a recent interview. “And I think if we are not defensive but we’re looking for ways for the public to know what the government is doing and what needs to be addressed, that may force some hard decisions. We shouldn’t fear that.”

The special bipartisan committee hasn’t had a meeting yet, and it’s unclear exactly what it will investigate or if it will have subpoena power.But the panel — led by co-chairs Rep. Dan Flynn, R-Van, and Rep. Carol Alvarado, D-Houston — will try to gain a better understanding of issues surrounding public-private partnerships, foundations and the wide range of salaries of top public employees.

“I just thought it was a good idea for one focal point in the Legislature to take a look holistically at the spectrum of key executives and how they are being compensated and whether there are some recommendations that can be made to bring more order to that process,” Straus said.

Gov. Rick Perry also has expressed to Straus concern about a lack of transparency, particularly the increase in numbers of foundations and groups that give money to public institutions, such as universities and state agencies — many of which the public and even the Legislature don’t seem to know very much about.

“The point of the exercise is to have a public conversation about what should be public information,” said Straus, who added that he is not expecting to find anything nefarious going on.

James Henson, a University of Texas government professor and the director of the Texas Politics Project, said the recent focus on transparency at the Capitol probably is an institutional response to the public’s skepticism and lack of faith in government that have been pervasive for the past few years.

“There does seem to be a lot of movement on this front,” Henson said.

The call for transparency comes from both ends of the political spectrum, he said. From the left is the traditional, progressive interest in transparency, and from the right is a desire by conservatives to keep tabs on a government they don’t always trust, he said.

Flynn and several members of the committee, which is equally divided between Democrats and Republicans, said there is much hope that the panel will dig deeply into the murky corners of government.

“When you have light on issues, it’s a disinfectant,” Flynn said.

Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, a Democrat from San Antonio and a member of the select committee, said the panel has real potential.

“There’s a lot of things going on in the state that we don’t know about,” Martinez Fischer said. “The question I have is where do we start?”

No one on the committee would say which entities would be investigated, but San Antonio Rep. Lyle Larson, a Republican member of the committee, said “everything in state government would be eligible.”

Also on the transparency front, state Sen. Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, and state Rep. Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, each filed bills Thursday to give the public more information about government spending and debt.

Separately, state Rep. Bill Callegari, R-Katy, and state Sen. Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock, filed bills calling for the state to publish more information on state pensions.

Additionally, state Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, filed a transparency bill that would require legislators, candidates and state officials to disclose more information about their income. Currently, unearned income, such as pensions or retirement plans, is not required to be disclosed.

UT’s Henson said he was encouraged by all the recent transparency talk, but he added, “Whether it goes anywhere is another question.”