He who controls the purse strings at the Capitol controls state government. At least, that's the theory. Whether it can be put into practice will soon be determined: Senate Finance chairman Steve Ogden has identified three state agencies that he hopes to radically transform through the appropriations process. In Ogden's line of fire are: Texas Southern University, the Texas Youth Commission and the Texas Department of Transportation.
"One of the things that bothers me around here is this notion that government is incapable of fixing anything," Ogden told me this morning in an interview he requested. "All we ever do is pontificate and nothing ever changes." In his view, TSU, TYC, and TxDOT are fundamentally broken and need drastic measures to change their "behavior and culture."
"The politics is going to get dicey on each of these and there will be a lot of pressure to sweep the problems under the rug. I don't want to do that," he said. "The problems are so severe and fundamental that I need to enlist all the support I can."
Ogden joins colleagues John Whitmire and Juan Hinojosa in focusing legislative attention on TYC, whose exective director recently resigned amid news reports that the agency covered up investigations of sexual abuse of incarcerated children. He added that the turnover rate among juvenile corrections officers has risen from 33% to 50%.
The allegations surrounding TYC "will make you sick to your stomach. I can't think of anything worse than incarcerating children, and then ... destroying them," Ogden said. "These kids [who have been abused] are finished. They are ruined for life. I don't know how you ever get them back."
In the cases of TYC and TSU, Ogden has come to believe that the fix is putting them into conservatorship. "Which means firing everybody and starting over." The situation at Texas Southern is so drastic that the university is in danger of defaulting on its obligations. The question is not 'if?', the question is 'when?'" Ogden said. He blames "gross fiscal mismanagement." The Legislature has never been willing to address the long history of financial problems at the historically black university because "the race card always gets played and we just sort of draw back. The tendency will be to look for a political escape hatch."
But he compared Texas Southern's predicament to Lamar University's ten years ago, when the Legislature put the college in the Texas State University System because of governance issues. "It was part of a local political cocoon and it was corrupt. I see a similarity at Texas Southern."
Ogden said he was researching the statute on conservatorship to see if it fit Texas Southern's situation. But the issue could be resolved by placing it under the auspices of a university system, like University of Houston, Texas State, or the University of Texas.
Calling TxDOT "totally out of control," Ogden said the Legislature needs to exert more control over how the spends money. "Politically, they are killing us all," he said of the agency. One method of getting the agency's attention would be to "create a TxDOT reform bill and tie its passage to the budget." Of course, if the reform bill failed, the Legislature would be forced into special session. "I'm not sure there are enough people in this building with the guts to put the Legislature in special session" over TxDOT. Another option would be to "limit what they can spend their money on through a rider in the budget," he noted.
While the three agencies are unrelated in constituency and mission, Ogden said they all exhibit a disfunctional behavior and culture. "I don't know if I can change behavor and culture at state agencies through the budget," he said. "But I am going to try."
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