Transparency is not just a good thing for the public. A study of the 2012 Recovery Act (ARRA) showed that the biggest users of publicly available data were government officials, who used the information to track spending. Cities that do not already issue comprehensive annual financial reports (CAFRs) should adopt them for the benefit of policymakers and the public. Meet or exceed Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP) and Government Accounting Services Board (GASB) statements in your reporting. Clearly account for liabilities such as pensions, retiree health benefits and infrastructure maintenance and replacement. Have that accounting independently verified.
According to a January 2021 report from Truth in Accounting, the top 75 US cities have a combined unfunded public pension obligation of more than $180 billion. Cities often underfund these obligations to cover budget shortcomings elsewhere, an irresponsible game of whack-a-mole.
Treasury guidance forbids using ARPA money in pension funds to cover unfunded liabilities from before the COVID emergency. It does allow spending on current payments for either defined benefit or defined contribution plans. Cities could use ARPA funds to provide additional payments to those plans to encourage employees to switch from their traditional pension to a defined contribution plan—which is a much more financially sound position for cities to be in.
Unlike FASB, the SEC has no control over GASB. But the Commission is obligated “to protect investors in the municipal markets from fraud, including misleading disclosures [emphasis added].” Taken together, the SEC’s own statements make a strong case that it is obligated to prevent fraud in state and local governments’ financial reports, which are confusing and obfuscate the truth.
The state and local governments’ annual financial reports are based on shoddy accounting practices. If confusing and misleading disclosures are considered fraud, then annual reports produce fraudulent disclosures.
It is confusing and misleading that the GASB requires state and local governments to keep two sets of books. Annual financial reports include governmental fund statements that are prepared using an accounting basis called the “modified accrual basis,” which in essence uses short-sighted cash accounting, while the consolidated financial statements are prepared using accrual accounting standards similar to those used by corporations.
This video contains 15 testimonies before the Governmental Accounting Standards Board (GASB) in March and April of 2021 by citizens, elected officials, think tank leaders, and more. All of whom argued against GASB’s proposals to continue cash-basis-like accounting for governmental funds statements. Cash-basis accounting supports bad government budgeting practices like counting borrowing proceeds as revenue, and underfunding pension funding requirements, in order to “balance budgets.” On the other hand, full accrual accounting shows expenses as they are incurred, especially when a government makes a promise to pay in the future.
Publication Date: 6 May 2021
Publication Site: Truth in Accounting channel at YouTube
I will give a very simple example: suppose Netflix makes a deal where instead of you paying for a year’s subscription at a time, you can get a big discount if you pay for 2 years’ subscription.
Subscribers love the deal and pay for it….
….and then Netflix says their sales doubled in their financial reports. That’s IF they followed cash-based accounting, which records cash flows.
But they don’t, because accounting standards boards (outside the government sphere) know that this is just a trick to boost how financials look under cash accounting. And there are loads of these tricks. I just gave one simple example. The trick of getting people to pre-pay for sales to boost the numbers is a well-known ploy on the revenue side. A well-known ploy on the expenses side is to put off paying bills.
This is obviously distorting recognizing the true economic arrangement underlying these transactions, and some of the tricks make for a more fragile economic position for specific businesses. It was always the marginal businesses, which were barely hanging on, where cash-basis accounting tempts into trickery, which usually ends in financial failure. So accounting standards have developed to prevent this stuff.
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The question of whether pensions and other retirement benefits should be more prominently reported by state and local governments is a burning controversy for the Governmental Accounting Standards Board.
What?s at stake is whether the public is being misled by when a governmental general fund is listed in financial statements as balanced while omitting those long-term debts.
GASB requires long-term obligations to be reported in governmentwide reports, but critics say lawmakers too often look only at cash flow funds.
?I implore GASB to stop this confusion and bewilderment,? wrote Sheila Weinberg, founder & CEO of Truth in Accounting in a comment letter. ?Our representative form of government is being harmed.?
Illinois is among the states that critics say have downplayed their tens of billions of dollars of unfunded long-term debts and should be forced by new GASB rules to become more transparent.
GASB officials, on the other hand, say that state and local governments have been required to disclose their long-term debts since the publication of GASB 34 about 20 years ago.
Several months ago, the Governmental Accounting Standards Board (GASB) issued two new Exposure Drafts for proposals that would lead to a new government accounting concept statement and related standard. GASB invited comment on those proposals, a process in which Truth in Accounting participated directly and also encouraged others to participate.
… The following information is on the State of Illinois, the city of Chicago and the Chicago Public School (“CPS”) system … The severe financial decline in those three entities have not been at all adequately communicated to the various users of the information. The accounting standards and reporting have not required it. Those governmental units are financially unsustainable and their services to their citizens have not been sustained. The financial accounting standards have been fundamentally flawed for decades and border on gross negligence.
… The GASB must have a higher level of accounting standards. There are no independent third parties overseeing their government accountings standards like there is with FASB and nongovernmental entities. The financial and service sustainability of State and local entities are in question. The services they provide are of the utmost importance to the public and their citizenry. … Requiring fund balance accounting using total financial resources focus measurement and accrual basis of accounting is the tool necessary for the political system and the public to successfully address these issues.
Although for more than half of my 53-year career in auditing, I managed to avoid any involvement with government GAAP. Yet I found myself interested in two articles about it in the April CPA Journal: “Is Government GAAP Necessary?” by Sheila Weinberg, and “The Future of Government Accounting Standards” by Joel Black. What appealed to me about both articles is that they were critical of the archaic, shortsighted, and conceptually groundless second set of “basic” financial statements prepared on the hybrid “modified accrual basis” that have been required in addition to full accrual financial statements since 1999 by GASB 34. Both authors are to be complimented.
The Black article is a scholarly summary of the long history of government GAAP and an explanation of the rationale for several differences from commercial GAAP. Accordingly, I believe the article would make a useful training tool for young staff. Black’s criticism of modified accrual basis reporting and his implied support for probable future improvements to the current model that he characterizes as “not major” follow:
The Governmental Accounting Standards Board has proposed changes it calls “improvements” to the accounting standards for governments. However, watchdog groups such as Truth in Accounting have criticized the proposed changes and urged the adoption of more stringent standards that would require governments to balance their budgets the way most businesses are required to do. Illinois has grown accustomed to using lax accounting methods to hide its budget deficits, racking up debt year after year. The state’s taxpayers would benefit from tougher standards that impose fiscal discipline.
Would the GASB’s proposal treat borrowing as revenue?
No. In fact, the proceeds of bond sales, bank loans, and other forms of borrowing are not reported as revenue in the governmental funds under the existing standards. Under the proposal, those proceeds increase fund balance in the governmental funds but are reported as inflows (not revenues) in the resource flows statement. The governmental funds statements are intended to report inflows and outflows of short-term financial resources, not revenues and expenses; that is the purpose of the government-wide financial statements. In the government-wide financial statements, the borrowing proceeds are recorded as an increase in cash and an increase in long-term debt.
Fund balance is the difference between assets and liabilities in the governmental funds. The portion of fund balance that comes from borrowing should not be mistaken for resources that can be used by a government for any purpose, such as paying bills or employee salaries—that would be assigned fund balance and unassigned fund balance. Unspent borrowing proceeds are reported in accounts such as fund balance restricted for capital projects; in other words, in this example, those resources can be used only for investment in roads, buildings, equipment, and other capital assets.