Tyler Morning Telegraph: Tax deals should be open records

Tyler Morning Telegraph
Originally published March 25, 2015

One of the best ideas to come out of this year’s Sunshine Week — a week dedicated to open and accountable government — is a bipartisan movement in Austin to change the way governing bodies such as cities and counties do economic development.

An “Economic Development Transparency Coalition” has formed, calling on the Legislature to change the Open Meetings Act and the Public Information Act to make economic development matters — like tax incentives and abatements — open to the public.

The Coalition includes conservative groups, such as the Texas Public Policy Foundation and Americans for Prosperity, and liberal groups, such as Public Citizen and the Texas Public Interest Research Group. It includes the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, as well as Tyler’s own Grassroots America — We The People.

“Texans deserve to know what’s going on in their government,” the Coalition contends. “This foundational principle for good governance has been an essential part of the independent spirit of our state since the very beginning. It is also why Texas has laws designed to allow citizens access to the inner workings of both state and local government. The most prominent of these are the Texas Open Meetings Act and the Texas Public Information Act.”

But those laws have gaps, the Coalition said.

“The most glaring of these is that, in both the Open Meetings Act and the Public Information Act, discussion and deliberation on economic development matters — such as when governing bodies decide to use public money to incentivize private corporations — are completely exempt,” the Coalition notes. “While final votes must be taken in public, the substantive public policy discussion, as well as any written materials related to it, can occur among the entirety of the governing body in closed session meetings without any public scrutiny whatsoever.”

Tax incentives and abatements are useful tools for cities, counties, schools and other entities to use to help attract and keep businesses.

Recently, for example, Tyler Junior College, Smith County and the Emergency Services District No. 2 all awarded five-year, 100 percent tax abatements to John Soules Foods on a $19 million expansion. In November, the company announced it was doubling its workforce by acquiring Pro View Foods in Georgia. Those abatements helped the company make the decision to do the expansions here..

Tax abatements can be a very good thing, as in this instance. But we’re still talking about public money. That’s why taxing entities should have to be open and above-board as deals are reached.

“Texans should be allowed to see the discussion and deliberation on incentives among their elected officials, and have opportunities to make their voice heard,” the Coalition says. “This is a public policy matter that is worthy of public scrutiny, and should not be treated any different than a budgetary or other matter.”

It’s notable that the Coalition is politically diverse. As the Texas Public Policy Foundation’s James Quintero says, “it’s heartening to see that there are still some areas that we, as Texans, can all agree — like the need for transparency and accountability in government, especially as it relates to economic development deals.”