Susan Combs
Susan Combs

As Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts, Susan Combs serves as the state’s treasurer, check writer, tax collector, state procurement officer and revenue estimator. In this role, Combs is committed to making state government work better for Texas through open, responsive and transparent government. In her presentation to Mays business honors students, she encouraged them to educate themselves about which agencies are taxing them and then hold those entities accountable for how they are spending taxpayers’ money.

Combs’ vigilance for government accountability was borne of her first close encounter with a government agency in 1987, when a power company proposed to install a new transformer and run power lines across her family’s ranch near Marathon, Texas. Rather than sitting passively by and letting the power company move forward with its plans, she educated herself on the facts and helped form a coalition of local ranchers to stand up for their rights as taxpayers and property owners. “We were able to control the scope creep of the power company’s project and reduce the proposed $12 million project to a $75,000 solution that delivered the necessary power without infringing on citizens’ rights or property,” she said.

Combs emphasized to the students the importance of recognizing that government in Texas is a big business, with more than 280,000 employees, $130 billion in revenues and $238 billion in assets. Given the size, scope and potential inefficiencies of running a business that’s larger than Chevron or ConocoPhillips, Combs suggested to students several ways the state can improve its ability to gauge and control true costs across all its lines of business. “We must employ advanced technology in pursuit of better forecasting and utilization of resources, and we need to achieve greater volume purchasing power and economies of scale.”

Since being elected Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts in 2006, Combs has driven sweeping reforms in state purchasing and contracting, saving nearly $12 million in her agency alone. Her office’s efforts have also saved the state more than $123 million through volume purchasing. Texas Transparency (texastransparency.org) is another of the reforms Combs has spearheaded since taking over the Comptroller’s Office. Through this innovative transparency initiative, her office has posted a series of online reports so citizens can educate themselves about the state of taxes in Texas. Reports cover a range of topics, including Your Money and the Taxing Facts, Your Money and Local Debt, Your Money and Education Debt, and Your Money and Pension Obligations.

“I had the distinct pleasure of meeting with Susan Combs, the Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts,” said Shelby Carter ’15. “Her desire for transparency with her constituents is admirable, especially when considering how much of an expense taxes are to the citizens. It is vital to know as much of the information as possible if we want to create and maintain an efficient and effective tax structure. As a possible future business owner, I want to be able to obtain any information that could affect my bottom line.”

Combs offered several additional bits of advice to students as they graduate from Mays and embark upon their professional careers:

  • Remember there’s no such thing as a free lunch when you hear about government providing incentives for business.
  • Don’t consider debt as intrinsically bad, but know the terms and risks associated with it.
  • Beware of activist investing strategies that some local government agencies are using for their public sector pensions, as many of them are ill-contrived or reckless.

Combs also delivered a parting call to action: Students can spur grassroots awareness and drive greater citizen engagement in government through the use of social media, and they should use these and other tools to demand higher levels of customer service from government.

“I walked into Wehner 440 with little to no knowledge on the duties of the Texas Comptroller,” said Matthew Baldree ’15. “Mrs. Combs excellently detailed how Texas behaves as a business. More importantly, she discussed how Texas raises revenue through taxation and how the taxpayers’ contributions are used by the state. To me, the most interesting detail of the discussion was the average taxpayer’s future. Local debt, underfunded pension plans, high education costs and drained water supplies are increasing the tax burdens of future generations. As a current and future taxpayer, it is in my best interest to address these issues now and have a proper understanding of how my tax money is being utilized by the state.” 

About Mays Business School

Texas A&M University’s Mays Business School educates more than 5,000 undergraduate, master’s and doctoral students in accounting, finance, management, management information systems, marketing and supply chain management. Mays consistently ranks among the top public business schools in the country for its undergraduate and MBA programs, and for faculty research. The mission of Mays Business School is creating knowledge and developing ethical leaders for a global society.