Comptroller candidates vow greater transparency, improved estimatesFebruary 27, 2014
From the San Antonio Express-News:
By Joshua Fechter, San Antonio Express-News
AUSTIN — Five candidates vying to replace outgoing Comptroller Susan Combs all want to change how the state keeps track of its dollars and bring greater transparency to the office — but they differ in approach.
Four Republicans are competing in the March 4 primary to become the state’s next top accountant: state Rep. Harvey Hilderbran, R-Kerrville, state Sen. Glenn Hegar, R-Katy, former gubernatorial candidate Debra Medina and former state Rep. Raul Torres, R-Corpus Christi.
Mike Collier, a certified public accountant from Houston, is the sole Democrat in the race.
Combs has held the office since 2006 and earned a mixed reputation.
She’s lauded for her transparency initiatives, placing budget data, revenue estimates, tax revenue and state debt on a website, TexasTransparency.org.
But she’s drawn criticism for missing the mark on biennial revenue estimates, which the Texas Legislature uses to craft the state’s two-year budgets.
In 2011, Combs underestimated how much money the state had on hand by about $12 billion. That led to massive cuts during that year’s legislative session, including $5.4 billion from the state’s public schools.
Collier called those cuts “devastating” and “unnecessary” given what turned out to be the state’s brighter revenue picture at the time.
“If you can’t get the numbers right, you can’t do anything right,” Collier said.
Candidates have suggested giving more regular updates about how much the state has in the bank. Theoretically, this would help the state respond to potential problems like the economic crash in 2008, or prevent incorrect numbers from derailing the legislative process.
They haven’t agreed on how often the state should do so, though: Hegar, endorsed by Combs, supports annual updates while Collier and Hilderbran want quarterly reports.
Medina said she does not know whether the office should update on a monthly or quarterly basis, a decision she says she’d make if elected.
Torres said he supports implementing a 20-year financial plan that includes regularly updated revenue estimates. This, he said, would implement widely accepted accounting practices and help the state forego financial woes.
“That’s what we do in business,” Torres said.
There’s room for improvement in the office’s online transparency initiative, as well.
Candidates want to make data available on the comptroller-run website more easily readable and accessible to help the public understand why each data set is significant.
“It has to be more than just a bunch of raw data,” Medina said. “It’s got to have some context around it.”
Hilderbran said the site should include information regarding state contracts and make public performance reviews conducted by the agency.
Hegar spokesman David White said Hegar would take action to increase transparency if elected.
But, Hegar faces transparency issues of his own: until this week, the Katy Republican has opted not to include his wife’s income on his personal financial disclosures.
Dara Hegar is a lawyer at the Mark Lanier Firm, a large Houston firm.
Hegar said in a statement that he is only required to include his spouse’s income if he has significant control over those assets.
“It appears, however, to be a trend to report such information though not required by statute,” Hegar said. “As such, I have included those assets in this corrected report.”
The GOP primary race is likely to go to a runoff like other statewide nonjudicial contests — lieutenant governor, attorney general, agriculture commissioner and railroad commissioner.
Medina — who in 2010 questioned the U.S. government’s story regarding 9/11 and later backed away from those comments — is a frontrunner, according to a University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll released Monday. She had 39 percent support of likely GOP voters.
The poll put Hilderbran at 26 percent, Hegar at 24 percent and Torres at 11 percent.
But those percentages represented how voters would cast ballots of the election were held today. Otherwise, 54 percent said they were undecided.
Fundraising figures provide a different picture: out of the four Republican candidates, Hilderbran had the most cash on hand, more than $500,000, at the end of the last reporting period.
Hegar had more than $300,000, Medina had about $36,000 and Torres had less than $1,000.