Lieutenant governor not daunted by criticism of his stance on budget board

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After editorials in most of the major newspapers in Texas condemned him for diminishing and demoralizing the state’s Legislative Budget Board, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick fired back.

“Somewhere along the line — whether intentionally, by liberal bureaucratic drift, or at the direction of past leadership — some staff at LBB began to take on the role of telling lawmakers, who were elected by the people, what programs should be funded and how taxpayer dollars should be spent,” Patrick wrote in an op-ed column carried by several of those same papers.

Patrick said the attack he was accused of making was, instead, a “re-shaping and downsizing” of the budget board. He said he and House Speaker Dennis Bonnen would be meeting in the coming months to appoint a new director, a post that has gone unfilled for more than a year, to restore some stability in the agency.

That isn’t likely to be the end of it, however. Patrick has quarreled with LBB leadership for years. He also quarreled with past House Speaker Joe Straus over the objectivity of the LBB’s work. Patrick is interested in dividing the agency to separately serve each of the legislative chambers.

What’s at stake is how legislators decide how much it will cost for each of the laws passed and programs created in a budget that in 2020-21 will be $251 billion. The politicking over the budget numbers should be done in public by elected officials, not by bureaucrats under pressure from elected officials and agency heads, experts on both sides of the political aisle say.

“What you need from the LBB is reliable information,” said Dick Lavine, senior fiscal analyst for the left-leaning Center for Public Policy Priorities in Austin. “We rely on their objectivity and independence. There is no objective advantage in creating two agencies.”

That the clash over the LBB reeks of politics isn’t hard to understand. The Legislative Budget Board was created in 1949 by the Texas Legislature to serve the legislature. Its board, session in and out, is made up of elected officials: the lieutenant governor, the House speaker and their eight appointees. 

The level of political sensitivity surrounding the board is reflected in the number of elected officials who work closely with the LBB who either declined to be interviewed or failed to respond to requests for an interview.

Neither Patrick nor his budget director Mike Morrissey, who once served as legal counsel for the LBB, returned calls and emails. Only one of the several members of the Senate Finance and House Appropriations committees contacted by The Texas Monitor responded to an interview request. State Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, a member of the Finance Committee, declined to comment for this story.

Officials for the LBB, including assistant director John McGeady, acting head of the agency, and his predecessor, Ursula Parks, now a legislative consultant, declined to return calls and emails. 

It was Parks’ resignation in October 2018 that triggered this latest skirmish, but Patrick’s problems with the LBB began almost from the time he moved from the job of state senator to lieutenant governor in 2015.

In the summer following the 2015 session, Patrick took the rare step of issuing a public rebuke of Parks for sending a letter to Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar critical of Gov. Gregg Abbott’s veto of $200 million from that session’s biennial budget.

“We wanted to be sure that it was clear the letter was from her, expressing her and her staff’s opinion, and not from me,” he said in the statement he posted on the lieutenant governor’s website. “She had a right to send a letter, but she knew we were not in support of her position.”

Patrick also asked then-Speaker Joe Straus to join him in forming a special joint committee to study how the LBB operated and to suggest reforms. Straus declined the offer and the two subsequently fought over the agency’s authority to issue biennial reports on government efficiency. The LBB last published the report in 2015.

The refusal of Patrick to allow the reports to be published culminated in the Texas Tribune publishing the 2019 report in April, in mid-session, with the approval of government transparency advocates. Patrick said he questioned why the agency had been given the job of assessing whether government agencies and programs were effective.

In October, the Tribune followed up with a story, based mostly on anonymous sources within the LBB, saying that Patrick was relishing “hollowing out” the LBB. 

They reported that McGeady had announced his retirement and that three other assistant directors were part of an employee exodus that cut total staff size to 108, a 26 percent decrease since 2015.

A request by The Texas Monitor to the agency to confirm those numbers and the McGeady resignation drew no response before this story posted.

Reports that the LBB is being gutted are not reflected in either the budget for the agency or its workload. The budget to run the agency was $25.5 million in 2012-13; that grew to $28.9 million in 2014-15, before Patrick became lieutenant governor, according to the LBB’s own biennial report, the Fiscal Size-Up. In 2018-19 the budget increased to $31.2 million, according to the Size-Up.

And while the numbers can vary from session to session depending upon how many bills are filed, there has been a relatively steady decline for the past decade in the number of fiscal notes and impact statements — analyses of potential taxpayer costs associated with a bill or a program — the agency has prepared for each session.

From a high of 10,324 fiscal notes and 1,846 impact statements prepared in the 2009 session, the numbers dropped to 7,916 and 776 in 2017, according to the Fiscal Size-Ups.

From Patrick’s perspective, some LBB staff worked at odds with his goals of keeping “state budget growth at a minimum, to shut down programs that weren’t needed,” as he said in his op-ed.

“Some LBB staff began to push the state budget agency in a liberal direction that did not comport with the vision of the state‘s conservative majority,” he wrote. “The lawmakers Texans elected to be accountable for state spending had little control over hiring and firing or the direction and accountability of the agency.”

The Texas Conservative Coalition Research Institute, a nonprofit that tracks the state budget from a limited-government perspective, said Patrick’s criticism was long overdue.

The institute rapped the LBB for low-balling projections on major efforts like the Children’s Health Insurance Program, which cost $419 million or 25 percent more than the $334 million projected in the LBB’s original impact statement.

The institute also questioned why there were no impact statements attached to two dozen bills that affected the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation when the implementation of those bills cost taxpayers more than $60 million.

Those staff members who spoke to the Tribune saw their roles as nonpartisan and said it was Patrick who was politicizing their work. The editorial boards of the state’s major newspapers agreed.

“If now you’re wondering why wrecking the state’s budget watchdog would be in a power-hungry lieutenant governor’s best interest, it comes down to this: The LBB is all about providing objective financial analyses, which tend to be the death of carefully laid political agendas,” the board of the Corpus Christi Caller Times wrote.

Talmadge Heflin saw the politicking and the bean-counting in a dozen years on the House Appropriations Committee, including a stint in 2003 as its chairman. Helflin, a conservative who spent 23 years in the House (he left in 2005) and has served as a budget expert for organizations including the Texas Public Policy Foundation, said pressure coming from elected officials and agency heads is an integral part of the job.

It is also natural, he said, for LBB staff working closely with agencies to “get comfortable with those agencies, to become advocates for an agency. That’s human nature,” Heflin said.

However, when a legislator thought he or she wasn’t getting a fair or full assessment of a bill, it was generally handled by addressing a supervisor or the director of LBB. “I think that’s what’s missing right now,” he said. “You’ve got to have a strong staff leader.”

Lavine, who has done budget advocacy for 35 years in Austin, the last 25 with CPPP, said the loss of Parks has hurt the agency and the process. While he has always found LBB analyses fair and objective, he said, Parks may have run afoul of Patrick and other Republican leaders “for telling them things they didn’t ask for, but needed.” 

Both Lavine and Heflin said they hoped Patrick and Bonnen will get together soon to name a new director. And both said they hope Patrick will abandon his plan to remake the agency.

“I can think of no objective advantage in creating two budget bureaus,” Lavine said. “None.” 

Mark Lisheron can be reached at [email protected].

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