Analysis: It's a Mess, but It's Someone Else's Mess

Government misadventures, like the current contracting scandals in Texas, don't make voters happy. But they don't necessarily hurt the people in office — especially when it's easy to hang the blame on the officeholders they replaced.

The day before Greg Abbott was sworn in as governor, he met with his predecessor, Gov. Rick Perry, who marked the 1925 Pat Neff Bible on Jan. 19, 2015, and passed it on to Abbott.

Sorry seems to be the hardest word, just like Elton John sings. But it’s an easy word now that the state’s 14-year governor has left the building and the members of his party no longer have to defend him from political attacks. 

Contracting fiascos in the executive branch assembled by Gov. Rick Perry have the full attention of Texas senators in budget hearings at the Capitol, and Republicans on that panel are openly taking shots.

The Finance Committee was talking about the state’s Health and Human Services Commission, where several top officials have been forced to resign amid a scandal over contracting, bidding and management misadventures. Several top officials have resigned under pressure. Forensic management teams have been dispatched to the agency to try to sort things out and clean up the mess.

The scandal came up during testimony Tuesday about the Department of Information Resources, which initially approved the contractor now entangled in the HHSC mess. The senators were restless.

“The state of Texas is listening to us, and we don’t sound like we’ve got it together here, folks,” said Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston. “I’m embarrassed.”

The chairwoman of the committee, Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, chimed in. “It’s out of control, and we are going to do something about it.”

That is bracingly candid, as these things go.

For a brief period here — a precious period for some — any troubles that surface in the executive branch belong to Perry. His successor, Greg Abbott, has a little bit of time to put his own stamp on the state government, for better or for worse. Luckily for him, voters and legislators are likely to see things like the HHSC contracting wreck as pre-existing conditions.

It calls to mind the political parable of the three envelopes.

An outgoing officeholder hands an incoming officeholder three numbered envelopes, saying they offer time-tested advice for any crises the new officeholder might encounter.

The message in the first envelope is “Blame Your Predecessor.”

The second advises the holder to “Blame the Media.”

The third?

“Prepare Three Envelopes.”

Abbott’s first envelope, if you want to call it that, is probably good for the duration of the legislative session, if not longer. Perry has been governor for a long, long time, and it is easy to hang anything that goes wrong on him or on someone he put into office.

It takes six years to go through the full cycle of appointments a governor makes. The last Perry appointees will be leaving office in 2021. Abbott’s grace period won’t last that long, but it’s hard to blame a governor for everything that happens in the first year he or she is in office. It’s not a cabinet government, and this is not a state that puts a lot of constitutional power in its top executive.

Abbott’s most powerful tool at the moment might be his broom and his cleaning supplies. It can be difficult to put your mark on agencies that appear to be working effectively. A wreck like this is just the thing for a brand-new governor looking to make an impression.

The Legislature is here to help clean things up. At least some of the agency’s top management will be replaced; many of those positions have already been opened. The replacements will be Abbott people instead of Perry people.

And while HHSC is the big headline at the moment, other agencies present the new crew with other clean-up opportunities. That could shorten the time it normally takes a new governor to gain effective control of the state bureaucracy.

Most never do. Perry went through the appointment cycle twice, and then some.

George W. Bush made it all the way through the six-year turn; for a minute there, he had had a chance to name each of the state’s appointees.

But Ann Richards and Bill Clements and Mark White didn’t, and they served during the years when Texas cemented its reputation — no fault to the personalities involved — as a weak-governor state.

Abbott might make it to the six-year mark. But with the help of a big mess or two, Perry and the proven magic of that first envelope, he has a head start.