Quick, someone find a fiscal cliff to jump from.
Susan Combs, the Texas comptroller of public accounts, released a report Wednesday saying we're all screwed. Public debt at the local level -- including community colleges, municipalities, school districts, etc. -- has more than doubled in the last decade from $87 billion in 2001 to $193 billion in 2011.
Somewhere, Helena Brown, our local fiscal hawk who's always harrumphing about this ambiguous and heretofore unsubstantiated debt crush, is high-fiving everyone in sight. Sweet, sweet vindication. Breathe it in, all. The stench of debt is in the air.
Under the banner of transparency, Combs' report chastises local government for spending irresponsibly, saying "all tax-supported entities have an obligation to adhere to the same financial management and monitoring standards that you maintain for your home or business." Later in the report, Texas is highlighted as having the 10th lowest debt ranking among the 10 most populous states. But then, on a local level, Texas ranks second-highest behind New York as the most debt-ridden state.
This isn't an aberration. With the Tea Party wielding the machinations of state politics, the buck, more or less, has been passed down to the local level. That means, when Gov. Rick Perry pledges to boldly balance the budget and cut spending, he's really telling your local school district or city administration: "You make up the difference. Me, I've got a tremendously awful presidential campaign to run."
"This surprised me that (Combs) would be so critical in such a broad-brush fashion of local officials," Rice University Political Scientist Bob Stein tells Hair Balls. "They're not coping with a bad economy -- quite the opposite. They're coping with a state that's drastically under-funding them. And as a result, they're trying to find money that the state has promised them." And that has meant an increase in debt. Debt doesn't occur in a vacuum. Cutting spending's all well and fine, but someone's still got to take out the trash and furnish a literate student body. Combs, in this report, has cast blame on local bodies -- but really, it's state governance that's created an increase in debt.
In Houston, debt makes up about one-fifth of next year's $4-billion budget. "Mayor Parker has a consistent record of holding down government borrowing," said Janice Evans, city spokesperson.
And all in all, that's not a bad debt percentage. Debt has taken a lot of heat recently -- and rightfully so by most measures -- but maintaining a debt level under 30 percent isn't necessarily a terrible thing. Remember, Alexander Hamilton, that pesky Founding Father most Tea Party aficionados seem to forget time and again, touted the national debt after the American Revolution.
"If not excessive, it would be a national blessing," he said. Credit has incredible liquidity and can help lubricate the functionality of governance. Too much of it can be crushing. But just the right amount can smooth over a lot and keep things running.
Besides, there may be other forces at work with Combs' report. She's likely planning to run for Lieutenant Governor in 2014 against a badly-weakened David Dewhurst. The race, like everything else in Texas, will come down to who can out-conservative the other. This report may presage that debate, and position Combs as the true debt-hater.
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But the gamble may backfire. This report will likely piss off a lot of local municipalities. They know they're getting screwed by the state. And then, may go the thinking, that same state has the temerity to blame them for a debt increase? Residual animosity over this may damage Combs in her campaign, Stein said. "I don't know who's advising her," he said.
We also called Helena Brown to get her thoughts, and yes, allow her a chance to rub it in a little. John Griffing, her spokesman, hung up on us immediately. Ouch, John.
Perhaps they're simply too busy reveling in glorious absolution.