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What kind of debt is it?

Comptroller Susan Combs is real worried about city and county debt, y’all.

Local governments are loading down Texas taxpayers with debt without providing them enough information about the amount already owed for roads, schools and other public projects, State Comptroller Susan Combs contends in a report released Wednesday.

Titled “Your Money and Your Debt,” the report notes that the current level of government debt approved by Texas cities and counties soared from 2001 through 2011, with tax-supported debt of cities increasing 126 percent to $27 billion. Tax-supported county debt, the report said, grew by 131 percent to $10.3 billion.

“As taxpayers step into a voting booth to approve new debt, government should tell them how much debt they are already responsible for repaying and how much debt service is included,” Combs said in a statement. “Elected officials are responsible for telling the taxpayers they serve about the price tag associated with new and existing debt.”

[…]

Although Harris County has no bond proposals on the ballot this fall, County Judge Ed Emmett criticized the report’s use of population growth and inflation as a benchmark to compare spending and debt. The state built the University of Texas and Texas A&M University with proceeds from oil discoveries, Emmett said, and could not have done so if it had been constrained by that alone. “The Ship Channel, the highway system, all those things were built in anticipation of future growth, not waiting until you get the growth and then saying, ‘OK, now you can spend the money,’ ” he said.

Emmett stressed the difference between debt backed by property taxes and that backed by revenues, such as tolls paid to the Harris County Toll Road Authority.

The Comptroller’s press release is here, and the report can be found at www.TexasItsYourMoney.org. I agree with what Judge Emmett says, and while Comptroller Combs acknowledges in the story that there’s good debt and there’s bad debt, it would have been nice if her report had used methodology to make that distinction. I would also note that with interest rates being at all-time lows, and with the pledge from the Federal Reserve that they will continue to be low for the foreseeable future, there’s never been a better time to borrow than now.

Another point is that cities and counties are doing what the state refuses to do.

Kevin Wolff, the only Republican on the Bexar County Commissioners Court, pointed out that, legally, county governments are a subset of state government and that cities and counties across the state had been forced to deal with legislative budget cuts and unfunded mandates.

“A lot of the debt that counties have had to incur is really through the process of unfunded mandates that come through Austin,” Wolff added. “They’re notorious for passing responsibility onto us for (programs) but not giving us funding sources to do it.”

And sometimes they do this by doing nothing. I am of course speaking of the refusal to expand Medicaid, which will hit counties and hospital districts hard. There’s a reason some counties want to do Medicaid expansion on their own.

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