Gaining Ground

Looking Ahead Toward Lasting Reform

In the pages ahead, we offer 400 recommendations to streamline state government, saving taxpayers more than $2.1 billion over the next two years and $4.6 billion by the turn of the century, while cutting the size of the state bureaucracy by just under 11,700 full-time positions during the next biennium.

There are additional cost savings associated with 44 of those recommendations, but we haven't included them in our totals because the savings can't be precisely calculated.

This is probably as good a time as any to make a confession, too. Gaining Ground does contain one new tax proposal -- a sales tax on the items that inmates purchase in prison commissaries.

Texans will find in this report the bare minimum of what we regard as the short-term and long-term proposals that can make state government more accountable to taxpayers and help it deliver high-quality services. We try to identify the continuing challenges facing Texas and point to a variety of responses we believe will work best as state government begins to change habits that have hardened over generations.

There isn't space enough in this brief introduction to discuss every proposal in detail; that's done in the accompanying volume. Instead, we've highlighted a few of our most important recommendations, underscored others and taken a look at how the new realities facing Texas are likely to play out.

Some of our proposals would save a lot of money. The Integrated Tax System, or ITS, is an example. For years, every legislative session has resulted in modifications to the state's tax and fee structure, and each change has in turn prompted alterations in the Comptroller's automated systems. This incremental adaptation has produced a tax processing operation made up of stand-alone systems designed in different eras and largely incapable of sharing information easily. A fully integrated system would simplify filing, improve customer service and increase both voluntary compliance and the collection of delinquent taxes.

Others speak less to huge savings than to common sense. The Official State Mileage Guide, for example, which sells for $60 per copy and has cost taxpayers more than $70,000 over the past three years, is a publication prescribed by state law to help state agencies calculate their travel expenses. It lists distances between cities along interstate highways and farm-to-market roads. Now it may be true that the modern world is shrinking and that technology has brought us closer together. But new highway construction that changes routes between cities isn't all that frequent. The Comptroller's office could easily make updates as needed on an electronic guide and save taxpayers money.

These are the kinds of things we've learned from Texans during our work of the past four years. We've also learned that government can't solve every problem, and few are willing to bear the financial or social burdens of chasing after such a misguided aim. We've learned that the vast inertia of tradition is difficult to budge. And we've learned that for every recommendation, there's a special interest out to kill the idea.

The ground Texas has gained since 1991, while impressive, resembles a quick weight-loss diet. Pounds have been lopped off state government in a few short years -- an important first step. And like any exercise program, the initial workout has caused aches and pains. We've only begun to weaken state government's weight-loss resistance.

The fat in state government isn't just sitting on the surface. It's marbled deep down through the structure of public policy, eating away at government's effectiveness and eagerly awaiting the next chance to bloat up the bureaucracy with a new program here or a hiring binge there. Too many outmoded patterns have been left in place. It's time for a permanent lifestyle change.

The standard bearers of the status quo have honed their attacks through the years, and the fearful anti-change message they peddle has proved to be a powerful weapon. With the release of this report, that message will undoubtedly be brought forth from the arsenal again to "prove" that Texas hasn't really gained much ground at all.

At a time when every issue is a pocketbook issue, Texans are skeptical of the occasional good news in their midst. The memory of bad times is too fresh, and the feeling that the bottom might drop out of the state economy at any moment is all too real. No matter how little you have, special interests seem to say to Texans, you can always settle for less.

But this is no time to sit back and contemplate our initial successes. Although we've come a long, long way since 1991, we still have a long, long way to go. We have it within our reach to consolidate the gains of the past four years and begin building on their momentum for the Texas of tomorrow.

The message of Gaining Ground is that simple, and that complex. It's about strengthening both the muscle and the heart -- the constitutional compassion -- of state government.