Texan's crusade cited by Clinton, Gore as model for reinventing government

September 12, 1993|By New York Times News Service

HOUSTON -- When Al Gore started hammering ash trays on "Late Show with David Letterman" last week and railing against the high cost of government-issue file folders, he freely admitted he was borrowing a page from the book of a fellow Democrat, John Sharp.

As the Texas comptroller of public accounts, Mr. Sharp conducted an exhaustive review of state government that President Clinton and Vice President Gore cited in Houston yesterday as the model for their plan to streamline the federal government.

And to understand why Mr. Gore has come off as so obstinate, so miserly and even so zany in defense of the public treasury, one need only look to Mr. Sharp.

Poring over the state budget one day, the comptroller learned that officials at the Superconducting Supercollider in Waxahachie planned to buy longhorn cattle and put them in a nearby pasture as part of a state-financed plan to create a "Texas ambience" at the research center.

"I called up there," Mr. Sharp recalled, "And I said, 'Hey! Are you guys planning to run those cattle and bang 'em into each other at the speed of light? If you are, I want to be there. If you're not, I've got some other animals you can put in the visitors' center. Pigs. Pigs!' "

When Mr. Sharp found out the legislature had voted to insert the word "Public" in the name of the state Department of Health, he ran down the street to the Capitol in Austin and ranted about how much it was going to cost to reprint stationery and business cards. The move was rescinded. Savings: $160,000.

He got the state maintenance department to stop taking care of the plants on people's desks, figuring it would be good therapy for the people at the desks to care for the greenery themselves. Savings: $630,000.

He has also had his setbacks, he cheerfully admitted: The cola lobby appears to have quashed his plan to bill vendors for the electricity used by soda machines in state buildings.

But the 43-year-old Mr. Sharp has definitely made waves at the Capitol, saved Texans money and, not coincidentally, heightened his own prospects as a future candidate for governor.

Still, his three-year helmsmanship of what he calls the "Texas Performance Review" also clearly illustrates the limits to what such populist penny-pinching can actually save taxpayers and may provide a cautionary example to Mr. Gore of how difficult it can be to achieve truly sizable reductions in the size of government.

In fact, while Mr. Sharp boasts that the legislature has adopted the great majority of his proposals in recent years to cut back on the cost of government and stave off the perennial specter of a state income tax, skeptics argue that the biggest-ticket items might not be called cuts at all.

One year, the largest item in Mr. Sharp's package was an accounting shift that managed to "save" Texas taxpayers $1 billion by transferring certain Medicaid costs to federal taxpayers. Hundreds of millions of dollars in what Mr. Sharp trumpeted as cost-cutting have come from the revenues of a new state lottery or from reductions in pension payments that some public employees say will have to be made up later on.

Richard Murray, a political scientist at the University of Houston, said: "Sharp did a lot of financial maneuvering that clearly in the short run avoided an income tax. This draws great acclaim because voters are bottom-line oriented, and the bottom line is they have no income tax. But whether he's really been able to reinvent government or set a plan for it, since Texas has a remarkably decentralized system, that's much more arguable."

The Republican leader in the Texas House of Representatives, Tom Craddick of Midland, was harsher: "There's a lot of smoke and mirrors, shifts, robbing Peter to pay Paul," he said. "Some of John's things were excellent ideas, but the great amount was not true savings."

The plan outlined by Mr. Gore would cut more than 250,000 jobs in the federal work force by 1998. In Texas, even with numerous agency consolidations pushed through by Mr. Sharp and some privatization, the state work force, exclusive of education-related workers who are tabulated separately, has actually increased in the last three years, from 129,000 to 146,000.

Nonetheless, Mr. Sharp argues that that still amounts to a reduction in the rate of growth of government, which was forced to expand because of an increased demand for services.

"Yes, government's still growing, but the same was true in the Reagan era," he said. "There are more people in Texas. There are more federal mandates. There are a lot more kids in school."

While the scope of the program to reinvent government here is arguable, there is no debate that Mr. Sharp has helped inject some new energy into the bureaucracy in Austin. It shows up in everything from shorter lines at the motor vehicle department to pledges at some agencies to answer all telephone calls within three rings.

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