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Analysis: Setting up a Review That Could Be Preceding a Makeover

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick wants a special committee to review legislative agencies he co-chairs with House Speaker Joe Straus. It sounds a little weird at first, but could put him in position to remake some of those agencies.

House Speaker Joe Straus (left) and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick.

When a top state official calls for an inquiry into the management of state agencies that he himself is supposed to oversee, something weird is going on.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick raised the question last week in a news release blasting the director of the Legislative Budget Board for questioning the legality of some of the governor’s vetoes in the new state budget. The meat of his complaint was in the headline: “Lt. Governor Dan Patrick Extremely Disappointed in the Actions of the LBB/Calls for review of all legislative agencies.”

Patrick and his House counterpart, Speaker Joe Straus, co-chair the Legislative Budget Board. They are co-chairs of the boards overseeing other legislative agencies, too, including the State Auditor, the Legislative Council and the Legislative Reference Library. They aren’t on the management chart at the Sunset Advisory Commission, but they pick the members of the board and have abundant influence there.

And Patrick, who came into his current post six months ago, wants to talk about how things work with his co-chair, who assumed his own current post six years earlier. Straus’ tenure gives him an advantage over his new co-chair. Patrick, naturally enough, would like to close that gap.

“I am sending a letter to Speaker Straus to recommend a joint special committee to examine how the LBB and all legislative agencies operate, what reforms are needed, what guidelines are needed and what changes need to be made,” Patrick said in his news release.

Those agency names could have come off of the doors in a cartoon about government; they don’t sound like much, but all of the words start with capital letters so you’ll know how important they are.

As it turns out, they are important. The budget board staffs the two legislative committees that write the state budget. They are highly trained specialists without whom the central document of government would fall apart. The budget board has another function that toggles lawmakers between rage and joy: Board analysts write many of the “fiscal notes” that serve as cost estimates for legislative proposals. A big note — a large cost — can kill legislation. A zero note or even the bureaucratic “cannot be estimated” can save it.

The Legislative Council is basically the law firm for the Legislature, drafting bills, drawing redistricting maps and so on. Every single lawmaker interacts with it and seems to have an opinion about it.

Sunset is broken, but that has more to do with the Legislature than with the commission itself. The Sunset Commission is supposed to recommend changes and overhauls to other state agencies on a set schedule. Most agencies are supposed to disappear if the Legislature does not vote to keep them going. Such disappearances are rare, and the renovations recommended by Sunset are regularly disregarded after legislators and lobbyists enter the conversation.

The State Auditor’s power was visible last week in a disapproving review of contracts at the General Land Office. That office, the Sunset Commission and the power of the budget give the Legislature much of its ability to limit the power of the executive branch of government.

You can see why a lieutenant governor would want to have a hand in who’s running things in those agencies. It’s an insider’s game, and Patrick, as a newcomer, started on the fringes of it. The heads of the agencies were named by his predecessors and by Straus.

A review like the one Patrick has proposed could open the door for naming new people to head legislative agencies — replacing people named by others with people he helps to pick.

The argument over the governor’s budget vetoes is of great significance to a small group of people: It’s an argument over power. The governor wants more control over spending and can only get it by taking power away from the Legislature.

Patrick, curiously, has taken the governor’s side in that fight — even though his aides were informed about the budget board’s challenge and approved sending it to the state comptroller (without either co-chair’s signature).

His interest includes the vetoes, but goes farther. A review of the budget board and those other agencies gives him a chance to put his mark on them, which would give him a little more power in the Legislature — and in the next argument with a governor. 

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