This commentary was originally featured in the Austin American-Statesman on October 29, 2017.
Hurricane Harvey is sure to test the mettle of incoming Texas legislators.
When lawmakers reconvene in January 2019, the state’s revenue picture is likely to be a little gloomier than usual, given that total losses from the storm could reach $190 billion. Even if the economic impact doesn’t hit revenues hard, Harvey will force a few extra budgetary confrontations, like providing financial assistance to Houston and surrounding areas, building and expanding infrastructure and lowering property taxes — both for those affected by the disaster and all Texans.
To be fair, federal assistance and some of the state’s $11 billion rainy day fund may help blunt Harvey’s impact, but even still, there are tough choices that lie ahead.
But where there is challenge, there is usually also opportunity — and that’s no different here.
Harvey’s silver lining is that it’s a chance rethink government— whom it serves, what it does and how it spends the public’s money. Done right, a top-to-bottom review of Texas governments could help weed out waste, redirect money from wants to needs and result in a better overall product. That’s not just pie-in-the-sky thinking either; President Ronald Reagan proved as much.
Faced with mounting budget deficits in the early 1980s, Reagan launched an ambitious effort to examine everything the federal government did and find out if there was a better way to do it. The governmentwide review started when Reagan signed an executive order creating the Private Sector Survey on Cost Control in the Federal Government, otherwise known as the Grace Commission.
The Grace Commission’s goal was simple: seek out waste in the federal government. What made the commission special, however, was that it was composed of and driven exclusively by the private sector.
In partnership with 161 top executives from around the country and 2,000-plus volunteers, the Grace Commission conducted an exhaustive examination of almost every federal department, agency and function looking for ways to interweave private-sector thinking and innovation. The commission’s findings were impressive.
After two years of study, the private sector-led group published a comprehensive report offering almost 2,500 suggestions to make the federal government run cheaper and better. Had all the commission’s recommendations been adopted, U.S. taxpayers could have saved as much as $424.4 billion over a three-year period — a princely sum even by today’s standards.
Of course, not all the commission’s recommendations were adopted by Congress or implemented by agencies due in large part to politics; but even still, the entire affair was quite a success. After all, the commission helped to reduce federal expenditures by $110 billion, improved the delivery of core government services, and, perhaps most importantly, created a model for others to emulate.
The example set by Reagan in the 1980s is one worth duplicating in Texas today.
Private-sector-led efficiency committees have enormous potential to positively impact the direction of state fiscal matters, as well as city finances. Unleashing the creativity and ingenuity of executives and entrepreneurs on Texas’ state and local governments has the potential to be a real game-changer — one that can help free up much-needed resources to assist in disaster recovery, eliminate waste, that has built up over time, and improve public services. Moreover, it’ll put fresh eyes on old problems to imagine new solutions.
Harvey may be one of the worst natural disasters to ever befall Texas, but there is still some good that can come of it.
Next session, conservative lawmakers must seize on the opportunity to follow in the footsteps of Reagan and partner with the private sector to rethink government. Especially in today’s difficult fiscal environment, we need to make sure that government is as efficient as possible and that every tax dollar is being put to its highest and best use.