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Analysis: A Name, But No Reputation

Change is hard, as the state's new land commissioner, George P. Bush, is finding out. It will take a while to find out whether it's necessary at the agency he took over in January.

Land Commissioner George P. Bush speaking at the GOP election night party at the Moody Theater in Austin on Nov. 4, 2014.

Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush has a well-known name, but no public accomplishments.

He’s new at this, after all.

He’s trying to build a reputation — a chore that requires the public’s attention. And he has attracted the ire of his predecessor, who appears to think that every change Bush makes is a commentary on how the office has been run for more than a decade.

Here’s an axiom of succession: It is easier to follow a failure than a success.

In the first case, you get to play the reformer and the hero who made things right. In the second, you either keep things going, screw them up, or change direction in a way that brings you glory without drawing comparisons to your predecessor.

Bush, with Jerry Patterson’s help, is getting public attention — and doing so by making his predecessor look like something less than a success.

With Patterson, his predecessor, pushing back, he’s likely to get either a clear win or a clear loss. If things work out, he’ll seem smart. Should he make a significant mistake, Patterson stands ready to pounce.

Bush, who took over as the state’s land commissioner in January, has made a series of moves he says will remake the General Land Office. That might be the ultimate result, but the immediate effect was to rile Patterson, a fellow Republican who seems to have thought the new guy would leave all of the furniture the way he arranged it.

Patterson certainly knows his way around the agency he headed for a dozen years. He didn’t draw hordes of flies during his tenure. The land office was scandal-free and most of the controversies there were generated — nurtured, even — by the commissioner himself. And he thinks the need for change is pretty small, and said so himself last week.

But Bush isn’t without ammunition of his own. The state auditor this summer cited “significant weaknesses” in the land office’s contracting processes. A couple of weeks later, Bush raised the stakes in an address to the agency’s employees, citing what he called internal threats to the organization, by which he apparently meant people and processes Patterson had left in place. “And some things that I’ve seen, along with the leadership and along with you, have to be rectified as soon as possible,” he said.

That started public conversation about the “reboot” of the land office — an overhaul that is now well underway. At least 111 employees have left the agency since Bush took over, according to the Austin American-Statesman. That’s about 17 percent of the people who worked for Patterson.

Bushalso wants to bring “zero-based budgeting” to the GLO. That’s not a new idea, but it’s a politically attractive way to say you’re going to strip the building down to the studs and remodel it.

It’s a simple idea: Reconsider every single expense as you write a new budget. Depending on how it’s done, it can be a useful tool or a black hole that swallows all of your time. And it comes up periodically in politics and business — whenever someone wants to restart their organization with the financial equivalent of a spring cleaning. State Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, used her post as Senate Finance Committee chairwoman to order a pilot program in zero-based budgeting at the Texas Education Agency. Former Gov. Bill Clements and former Lt. Gov. Bill Hobby were using the technique almost 40 years ago.

The new boss at the land office is bringing in some of his own people. He’s going to give this budget thing a whirl. And he is going to find his own way to deal with something about that agency that all of his ambitious predecessors know well: Voters don’t pay much attention to the General Land Office or to its commissioner except when something goes wrong.

Each of the commissioners since 1970 — Democrats Bob Armstrong and Garry Mauro, and Republicans David Dewhurst and Patterson — tried to climb the political ladder. Dewhurst, who had an important personal attribute — he was rich — made it to the lieutenant governor’s office. None of the others was successful in their attempts to win higher office.

It is no surprise that Bush’s changes knocked Patterson’s nose out of joint. But this is not really about Patterson — it’s about the new fellow’s reputation. With a name like his, the new guy has at least one political advantage his predecessors lacked. He’s still working on that reputation thing.

Will the changes at the agency backfire or propel Bush to greater heights? No matter what his publicity people and his detractors are saying, it is too early to tell whether his gamble is shrewd. But we will find out eventually: He has placed his bet.

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