Hidden Jewels of State Government

By Joe Adams, former LBB analyst and the first director of planning for the Texas Workforce Commission. Currently with the Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama (PARCA)

Like most Texans, I like to brag about my native state whenever possible. I often tell of things that Texas does right, that other states should emulate, from its budgeting processes and structure to its workforce programs.

In November, I was aghast reading about vacancies at two important agencies in Texas, with a year-long vacancy at the Legislative Budget Board (LBB) and a longer vacancy at the head of the State Auditor’s Office (SAO), two critical agencies for providing legislative oversight in Texas. The LBB director’s position has been vacant for more than a year and the SAO for almost four years. A Texas Tribune article went on to say that there was a “brain drain” occurring with other senior staff retiring. Whatever the reason for the current condition, it is fair to say that their role in making state government run well cannot be overstated. It’s like not having directors at the Congressional Budget Office or the General Accounting office for the U.S. Congress.

The people who make these processes work are the guts of well-run governments.  When agencies like these break down, chaos ensues. Agencies can go rogue, policy making can give way to ad hoc, transactional politics, and short-term fixes can replace long-term plans. Having competent leadership supporting a professional, dedicated staff matters. Without people like these, who provide information with integrity, how would decisions be made, and on what basis? Can decisions even be recorded correctly without that expertise? Who, or what, fills that void.

Both agencies have accrued national reputations for high competence, and are  counted among the best in the country at what they do. They help state leaders govern more than 170 state agencies, providing information and oversight by providing data, analysis, and routine reports about agency performance and adherence to their legislative mandates. In essence, the LBB and SAO are the eyes and ears of the Texas Legislature as well as its institutional memory. Most importantly, the LBB produces the biennial General Appropriations Act, which now runs over 1,000 pages and sets the rules for spending over $106 billion. The SAO makes sure those rules are being followed.

Staff from these agencies often end up in other state agencies, making sure people follow the rules. In the mid-1990s, I had the opportunity to serve my beloved state for six years, working for the Legislative Budget Board (LBB) and then the Texas Workforce Commission (TWC). The state was emerging from a couple of scandals involving contracts and disallowed costs. Legislators wanted the TWC to start out with a healthy management system for spending $1.2 billion in annual appropriations, so it hired several SAO auditors to help establish its financial, internal audit, and contract management systems, critical components of an agency that provides funds for 28 local workforce boards across the state. I was hired to report TWC’s performance measures and develop the required agency plans.

In the years since, the LBB has taken on more assignments, providing more information as the appetite for data and oversight has grown, but the bread and butter function of the agency remains the production of the states’ appropriation act. LBB analysts review state agency requests with a fine-toothed comb, scrubbing budgets for the beginning of each session, trying to anticipate the questions that will arise about each agency. Their work is in writing and they are accountable for it.

LBB analysts and SAO auditors are accountable, but more importantly, they are responsible for holding everyone else in state agencies accountable as well. They also work for the Legislature, not anyone else. It’s important to know what LBB analysts are not doing. They’re not on the phone talking to lobbyist or advocacy groups about what they think. Instead, they ask state agencies questions, employees whose jobs depend on providing accurate information and who may be required to testify to the veracity of what they are reporting. Texas has criminal penalties for false reporting (Texas Penal Code § 37.10). A lobbyist can say anything they want, and advocates often leave out information that doesn’t make their case. Having a professional, competent staff to do this kind of work is essential to the integrity of the decision-making system.

Having leadership that reinforces the ethos of serving the Legislature, shielding analysts from outside influences and maintaining systems to weed out mistakes is critical for state government. I’ve seen things go wrong in other states. In Mississippi, my employer lost its appropriation one year due to one word being wrong in the appropriations act, sending the appropriation for the John C. Stennis Institute at Mississippi State University to the Stennis Center, which is a federal agency. Who knew? In Alabama, a legislative staffer was caught working for lobbyists to add language to gambling bills. That sort of thing would be nearly impossible to get through reviews at the LBB, where analysts who write “fiscal notes” costing-out bills would have posted any such changes online.  Alarms would go off everywhere. This is an invaluable commodity, which all states should support and properly staffed.

The opinions expressed here are solely the author’s and do not reflect the position of PARCA or UAB