Gaining Ground


The writer of Ecclesiastes may not have been entirely correct. Every now and then, despite a lot of evidence to the contrary, there really does seem to be something new under the sun, from nuclear fission to microwave popcorn.

In Texas, there's something new, too -- government that tries to work effectively and deliver services that people want, while doing it for the lowest cost possible and with a friendly, helpful attitude. It isn't widespread, perhaps, or even commonplace. But it's beginning to take precedence over the traditional model of arrogant, wasteful bureaucracy.

The truth is that governance is usually a thankless and impossibly difficult task, regardless of one's ideology or political stance. Old faces pale. Startling ideas suddenly don't seem so startling. Innovative proposals tend to grow thin, and new approaches don't seem quite so new anymore. Familiarity, to recoin a phrase, breeds contempt.

Yet, state government, trapped in the attempt to balance the next budget by taking nips in taxpayer spending here or tucks in taxpayer-funded programs there, has begun to change. It isn't perfect by a long shot. But the emphasis on entrepreneurial approaches and customer service in state government is definitely new.

Texans don't spend every waking moment thinking about the state. Even those who spend inordinate amounts of their time calling radio talk shows to complain have other things to occupy the day. Work and family and recreation take up most people's time. While state government matters more than many admit, or like, Texans are preoccupied with other issues in their personal lives. Matters of process -- how state government is organized or how it delivers services only others need -- rarely mobilize much concern.

That's probably how it should be. State government is merely the mechanism by which we've concluded that we can organize our society to achieve in community what eludes us as individuals. At its best, it's driven toward this common goal and steered along the way by its customers and owners, who usually just refer to themselves as Texans. It's supposed to do no more and no less than what we want, and then leave us alone to pursue our private dreams. It's not supposed to be a public nightmare.

Yet, every Texan intuitively knows that state government could be better. From the single mother with a disabled child to the small business owner whose tax bill is due, citizens of the Lone Star State realize they haven't been getting what they pay for. Too much pass-the-buck bureaucracy, not enough high-quality service -- that's what they still expect to find when they shop at the state government store.

Although Texas has gained a lot of ground in the past few years through the efforts of TPR and others outlined in this report, the real work lies ahead. We're just getting started, if the truth be known, toward trimming the fat that has been allowed to build up in state government since Texas joined the Union back in 1845.

One-hundred and sixty years later, the world has changed -- and state government has changed along with it. We have duties and responsibilities that couldn't have been imagined back then, when that great Texas patriarch Sam Houston wrote that Texas faced a unique opportunity to "govern wisely and as little as possible."

But midway through the 1990s, we find ourselves with another unique opportunity: to concentrate on the fundamental changes in state government that will make the progress we've made up till this point permanent. We have the chance to build on the momentum of the past few years and to institute public policies that will carry us into the 21st century.

It's time to move past questions of immediate budget savings and even long-term efficiency to address the underlying assumptions of state government. How do we assess the quality of our public policies? Who do they help, and who do they harm? Can we fix the parts of the machine that are broken? Or should we throw the whole thing out altogether?

How can we stand by the business community without standing on its back or care for the most disadvantaged among us without breaking the bank? How can we strengthen our schools without overburdening them with rules, fight the random crime in our neighborhoods without jeopardizing our basic rights or prepare for the challenges of the future without ignoring the needs of the present?

What can state government do to help build a better future for all Texans?

Texas is at a turning point, a time that may not return in our lifetimes or the lifetimes of our children. Without trying to over-dramatize the moment or put too fine a point on it, we have the chance today to do what we may not have the chance to do for a long time to come -- to rethink, reinvigorate and reform the basic structures of our public institutions.

In a word, we have a choice. We can reach out and shape the changes coming our way, or we can let them wash over us in waves.

That's what Gaining Ground is all about. It contains hundreds of recommendations -- some easy to accept, some hard -- for making Texas a better place in the short-term and for consolidating the progress we've made since 1991.

It begins the process of challenging the assumptions we've grown accustomed to in state government and proposes new standards by which to measure our performance in the years ahead. It presents some unusual solutions and some common sense suggestions. It rejects the prevailing feeling that our public life is helpless to make a positive difference in our private lives.

State government can't solve every problem. But it can provide valuable, useful services at a reasonable price. It can stop squandering our money on programs that people either don't want or can receive cheaper and better somewhere else. That's the minimum Texans demand and deserve -- a state government that will begin to reinstill their satisfaction as customers and their pride as owners.