In Texas government, the buck stops somewhere

By Ross Ramsey
You’ll know Texas leaders are doing a great job when you hear people in the private sector say they wish their businesses ran like the state government.

Right now, it’s the other way around — you’ve heard politicians say, “Government ought to run like a business,” or “We should write budgets just like you and your family do.

Those leaders have a long way to go.

Competence might seem like an awful lot to seek from the state government.

A federal judge chewed out the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services for continued mistreatment of foster kids in spite of a nearly 4-year-old court order meant to get the state back on the straight and narrow. The state could end up with daily fines up to $100,000. Texas already put the judge who’s watching it angry enough to call out the state in open court: “I can no longer find [the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services] to be credible in any way,” U.S. District Judge Janis Jack said. “It’s shameful. … You all cannot be relied upon for anything. Period.”

Election officials in the state’s biggest county — after pulling an all-nighter to count votes in an election they should have been able to tally before bedtime — are barking at the secretary of state’s office for changing the operating rules in the middle of the constitutional amendment election. State officials say the county had been out of compliance for a decade, but the state didn’t break that news to them until less than two weeks before Election Day.

The lieutenant governor is bragging about his role in hobbling the legislative agency that does the nitty-gritty work in writing the state budget for the (cough, cough) nonexperts elected to the Legislature. Dan Patrick might be right in saying the Legislative Budget Board staff was packed with wild-eyed liberals, but instead of managing the problem, he decided to starve the agency by cutting off Senate funding, and then boasting about the $250 billion budget — a 15.9% increase over the last one — that was put together with the help of that shrinking staff of experts.

What starts as a fumble can sometimes work out. Put this on that watch list: The governor started moving homeless people out of visible spots in Austin without a plan to solve the overarching problem of homelessness. Out of sight, out of mind, you know. But Greg Abbott ad-libbed a second phase, saying five acres of state land could be used for for a temporary homeless camp while local civic groups put together a $14 million temporary shelter.

Hold your judgment until you see how Camp Abbott works out, but his is a better interim fix than scattering homeless Austinites without giving them a place to land. In a state where just about every city has a significant homeless population, a useful policy might grow out of what started as a Twitter tantrum.

That would be an exception at a time when the state’s ruling political party is so busy with its own miscues. If the Republicans were in the minority and the Democrats were having troubles like these, the GOP would be having a field day. (That says something about the pushback ability of the Democrats, but that’s another column.) That’s exactly what the Republicans did in the 1980s, when the Democrats were (mostly) in charge and the state was losing big battles over its mismanagement of prisons, institutions for people with mental illnesses and disabilities, and public schools, while it was also trying to clean up its highest civil court.

They’d run it better, Republicans said. They’d run it like a business, they said. And for a while, that’s the way they tried to govern — as stewards of the public trust. It wasn’t all strawberries and cream, to be sure, but it didn’t seem to be the sort of fruit the current gang is harvesting.

Business and government aren’t the same, but they’ve got a lot in common. They’ve got work to do, and the folks in charge are there to get that work done with a minimal amount of noise and fuss and waste.

Part of the government’s job is to take care of foster children. Elections are supposed to run efficiently and without interference. Policy experts ought to be protected from politics. And elected officials ought to be judged by their work.

This article originally appeared at the Texas Tribune.

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