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For Comptroller Hopefuls, Revival of Clinton-Era Reviews is on the Table

More than 20 years after then-Texas Comptroller John Sharp launched a popular program to cut government waste, the candidates to be the next comptroller are talking about reviving it.

GOP candidates for state comptroller. Clockwise, from top left: former gubernatorial candidate Debra Medina, former state Rep. Raul Torres, state Sen. Glenn Hegar and state Rep. Harvey Hilderbran.

Six weeks after he was sworn in as president in 1992, Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore held a news conference on how the federal government was going to follow the lead of Texas. Clinton was announcing the launch of a National Performance Review to scour the federal government for efficiencies and improved services. The initiative was modeled on one run by Texas Comptroller John Sharp

“Under the leadership of Gov. Ann Richards and because of John Sharp’s tireless efforts, the people of Texas have seen first-hand how a new standard can be set for eliminating waste and renewing a sense of responsibility in government,” Gore told reporters. “That’s what they’ve done in Texas with their historic Texas Performance Review.”

More than 20 years later, the candidates to be the next comptroller are talking about whether to return those heralded performance reviews to the comptroller’s office, which was stripped of that power amid political controversy in 2003. State Rep. Harvey Hilderbran, R-Kerrville, one of four candidates in an open Republican primary, and Mike Collier, the only Democrat in the race, have been the most vocal about the concept.

“As comptroller, I’ll re-establish performance reviews to eliminate waste, fraud, abuse and duplication in state government,” Hilderbran said in a TV ad aired last month.

Another Republican in the race, state Sen. Glenn Hegar, R-Katy, voted in the Senate to move the performance review from the comptroller to the Legislative Budget Board in 2003. He now supports returning that function back to the comptroller’s office, spokesman David White wrote in an email Monday.

The other two primary challengers, former gubernatorial candidate Debra Medina and former state Rep. Raul Torres, have spoken on the campaign trail of doing more to identify waste in state government, but have stopped short of reviving performance reviews. Torres has said he wants to conduct “external audits” of state-funded agencies.

“I've talked about the need to be efficient in the agency and to drive excellence in customer service,” Medina said. “I think I'm still open to exploring how best to go about doing that.”

Sharp’s original Texas Performance Review in 1991 included more than 200 proposals for cutting costs or inefficiencies in state government, including consolidating state agencies, increasing fees and moving more toward privatization of some state services. The report sparked strong debate in the Legislature, which ultimately adopted dozens of the recommendations.

By 1993, the Clinton White House tapped Sharp and Billy Hamilton, Sharp’s deputy comptroller, to help design a national version.

“What we embarked on and what the president and vice president are embarking on here is not a slash-and-burn mission,” Sharp said at the White House press conference at the time. “It is more a weed-and-cultivate mission.”

Over the next decade, the widespread praise of Sharp’s first performance reviews gave way to a less rosy reception for those of his successor, Carole Keeton Strayhorn, who frequently clashed with Gov. Rick Perry and rest of the state’s leadership. Critics viewed her performance reviews as thinly veiled efforts to disparage Perry, whom she later unsuccessfully tried to unseat.

The Legislature voted in 2003 to move the performance reviews and audits of school districts to the Legislative Budget Board, which is overseen by members of the House and Senate. Strayhorn lobbied against that effort, suggesting the move was “some form of political retribution” for her criticism of lawmakers who made smaller spending cuts than she advised.

Supporters of the move, largely Republicans, said it would save money; they noted that LBB staff conducted a process similar to performance reviews that was just not as well known.

"Why in the world would we have a group in the Legislative Budget Board and a group in the comptroller's office doing virtually the same thing?" Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst asked at the time, according to the Houston Chronicle.

In the last decade, the LBB has beefed up its performance reviews, which are mostly incorporated into Government Effectiveness and Efficiency Reports released at the start of each legislative session. The 2013 report had 143 recommendations. Sixty-seven were ultimately adopted, according to the agency.

"We believe that our work has had a very successful run for the past 40 years because we are objective and strictly nonpartisan in our reviews and analyses," LBB Director Ursula Parks said in a statement. "In addition, we are able to use the legislative appropriations process as a vehicle to implement many of our budget-related recommendations."

Though candidates are talking about returning performance reviews to the comptroller’s office, the Legislature would still need to approve such a change and possibly increase the comptroller’s budget to pay for it.

Collier spokesman Jason Stanford cited the program’s convoluted history in arguing that Texas will be better served if the next comptroller is a Democrat.

"You might forget that it was a Democrat who used the Texas Performance Review to identify $8.5 billion in taxpayer savings and a Republican Legislature that abolished it,” Stanford said.

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