Texas Efficiency Program Sparks Political Squabble

Although much-loved by fiscal conservatives, e-Texas -- the state's money-saving efficiency program -- is under assault from the Republican-dominated Legislature.

In a special legislative session this week, some lawmakers are trying to take the program away from Texas Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn and fold it into their own Legislative Budget Board. They tried and failed to do the same thing earlier this summer.

The problem, it seems, is not that lawmakers think the program is ineffective. Rather, they appear to want to appropriate the program for their own ends.

Strayhorn told lawmakers in a Senate Finance Committee meeting Wednesday that she feels like her office is being penalized for "telling the truth."

"I was telling the truth when I said we had a budget shortfall. I was telling the truth when I said the budget didn't balance. I was telling the truth when I said more than $700 million was available to restore cuts before critical health care was eliminated for frail elderly and medically need children," she said.

The program Strayhorn is defending -- e-Texas -- was founded in 1991 by then-Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock in the midst of a recession. Since its inception, the program has recommended more than $16 billion in savings and become the darling of fiscal conservatives across the nation.

A recent e-Texas report recommends increasing the flexibility of higher education funding (estimated savings: $76 million), eliminating the Texas Food and Fibers Commission (estimated savings: $3.1 million) and increasing community options for mentally handicapped adults (estimated savings: $18 million). This is a sampling of the kind of money-saving ideas that come out of the program.

"e-Texas is a creative, systematic and institutional approach to saving money in state operations," said Chris Atkins, fiscal analyst for the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a conservative state government organization.

Atkins said ALEC has created model legislation for other states based on the e-Texas model. The key to the program's success, he said, is that it maintains some level of independence from the appropriating branches of state government.

"e-Texas has clout because the state budget has to be certified by the Texas comptroller, who also oversees e-Texas. It's also reasonably insulated from the executive and legislative branches; many audit committees serve only so long as they represent the priorities of the governor or legislative leaders," he said.

That independence is what some state lawmakers are trying to end. The reason, they say, is that Strayhorn's e-Texas duties conflict with another key role of the comptroller's office -- revenue estimation.

Texas state Sen. Steve Ogden (R) said this presents too great a temptation for the comptroller to overstate the size of budget deficits.

"I see a conflict here, a big one: The more savings you can claim, the better it sounds," Ogden said at the committee hearing, according to the Houston Chronicle.

Despite the current flap with legislators over who should control e-Texas, the program remains popular in state government circles because it helps assure taxpayers that their money is not being wasted.

"I think people have to be convinced that government is operating as efficiently as possible before they'll be willing to part with more of their tax dollars. They are not going to put any more money in state government until they are sure that no money is wasted anywhere," said Eva Deluna, budget analyst at the Center for Public Policy Priorities, a Texas-based group that studies the effect of public policy on low-income individuals.

Perhaps the one group that would just as soon see e-Texas disappear is public employees, many of whom view "cost-cutting" as a euphemism for "job-cutting."

"We've been cutting back on state employees for a long, long time, so much so that in my part of the world, the prison world, we're so understaffed that it's a security risk. God bless the state for being more efficient. But they're about ready to shut this state down," said Dee Simpson, political coordinator for the Texas Association of State, County and Municipal Employees.