Your next four years as state comptroller are going to be taxing. I should know.
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To: The Honorable
Carole Keeton Rylander,
Comptroller of Public Accounts
From: John Sharp
A new job in state government is always a challenge, especially during a legislative session. And it’s even more of a challenge when everyone is looking to you for fiscal notes, revenue estimates, and research on everything from property-tax values to public safety. A legislative session can be a hectic time in the comptroller’s office. That’s because the agency is one of the most important—and one of the most underrated. Believe me, I know. When I became comptroller in 1991, the Legislature was staring down the twin barrels of a difficult dilemma. On the one hand loomed a projected budget shortfall of as much as $6 billion, and on the other the very real prospect of new taxes or even a state income tax. Many believed that the only real option was to slash vital state services. That’s when the Texas Performance Review (TPR) was born—and when we discovered that the possibilities of the comptroller’s office are almost endless. From economic analyses to school finance to welfare reform, you can do a whole lot more than, well, collect taxes.
During my eight years in office, for example, my staff and I managed to identify more than $8.5 billion in taxpayer savings while coming up with ideas that have made a difference in people’s lives. For instance:
• The Lone Star card, which was recommended in the first TPR report, replaced the old paper-coupon food-stamp system with an electronic debit card, saved taxpayers tens of millions of dollars by ferreting out fraud, and returned the federal food-assistance program to its original purpose: feeding hungry families.
• The Texas Tomorrow Fund, which was recommended in the 1994 TPR report, made it possible for parents to lock in the costs of their children’s future college tuition and fees at current prices.
• The Texas School Performance Review, which was passed by the Legislature in 1991, touches on practically all areas of a school district’s operations—from administration and personnel matters to transportation costs, campus security, and community involvement—with the goal of making sure our scarce education dollars are spent in the classroom rather than on red tape and bureaucracy.
When all is said and done, however, the purpose of the comptroller’s office isn’t to administer high-profile programs like these, no matter how important they might be. The real job of the comptroller is to enforce the pay-as-you-go provision of the Texas constitution. That may not sound like a lot, but it isn’t always an easy thing to do. The first Texas comptroller—whose name, appropriately enough, was John Money—lasted only fifteen days on the job. He took the oath of office on the day after Christmas in 1835, leaving shortly after the new year dawned in 1836. Apparently he considered running off to join Texas’ revolutionary army less dangerous than serving as tax collector for the provisional government.
He might have been right. As with every Texas comptroller since, one of Money’s main tasks was to tell lawmakers how much money they could spend and remind them that they couldn’t dispute the revenue estimate without a four-fifths vote of both houses, a provision many of us wish the federal government had. That doesn’t always make the comptroller popular with legislators, but it provides a pretty good measure of protection for Texas taxpayers. Even though a two-thirds vote is all that’s needed to override the governor’s veto, it takes a four-fifths vote to override the comptroller, which has never happened. (I’m duty bound to point out how high the stakes can sometimes get. Back in 1903, comptroller Robert M. Love—whose name seemingly didn’t reflect how some people felt about him—was shot to death at his desk in the Capitol. Yet even in death, Love wasn’t overridden.)
The fact is, the Legislature can’t spend more than you say it can. That’s important, because when it comes to spending tax dollars, the only difference between Dem- ocrats and Republicans is that though both will spend every dime in the state treasury, Republicans will tell people they feel bad about it.
I’m sure you’ve discovered the excellent tools that can help you in your work:
• The Renaissance Projectprovides a mechanism for reviewing, streamlining, reorganizing, and improving the agency’s core functions with an eye toward providing Texas taxpayers better customer service.
• The Integrated Tax System has refined the tax and fee processes, standardized tax collection, and made the tracking of state revenues more efficient and equitable.
• The Uniform Statewide Accounting System has overhauled Texas’ fiscal management systems to offer online a wide range of financial information to state leaders and other agencies.
• The Industry-Practitioner Liaison Group, which includes a broad spectrum of Texas business representatives, provides a regular forum for open communication between the comptroller and taxpayers. This group can also recommend ways to simplify tax laws.
It’s true that in the 164 years between John Money’s administration and yours, state lawmakers have increased the duties and responsibilities of the comptroller far beyond those set forth in the Texas constitution. The job today encompasses more than certifying that the books are balanced, collecting the taxes, and tracking the state’s finances. Its key missions now include interpreting economic trends, helping shape state fiscal policy, making state government more efficient, and keeping the public informed. For example, the comptroller’s staff was predicting $12-a-barrel oil a year before it happened.
But it’s also true that the most important work of the agency remains the day-to-day stuff. As comptroller, you still direct the collection of most state taxes and fees, including the sales, corporate franchise, motor fuels, motor vehicle sales, oil and natural gas production, and inheritance taxes that fund state services. You still have field offices in major cities across the state and around the nation to take applications for tax permits and licenses and to make sure delinquent taxpayers bring their accounts into line. You still have auditors throughout the state and in other states’ major cities who regularly check taxpayers’ books to help them comply with the law. You still track more than five hundred state funds and accounts that keep the state government running, still pay all state employees and process all claims to handle the state’s bills, still make sure that state agencies stay within their approved budgets, and still manage a uniform accounting system to oversee the state’s financial operations as efficiently and effectively as possible. In short, if you and your staff left town, the legislative session would screech to a halt in a matter of days. The operation of this enormous enterprise we call Texas depends to an important degree on the work you do.
How indispensable are you? If Texas were a sovereign nation, you would be overseeing the eleventh-richest economy on earth (at least that’s what it was in 1996). You would be attending international summits while representing an economic powerhouse whose yearly trade activity outpaces that of Australia. You would be spending your days watching over the collective financial interests of a population that has surged past 19 million and continues to grow. Indeed, a land officially classified as “rural” until 1950—the year I was born—today has more cities than any other state, two of which rank in the nation’s top ten largest cities.
Such explosive growth will inevitably increase pressure on state services and revenue sources, and in the next four years you’ll do many remarkable things to help the state government meet these challenges. Not that anyone outside Austin will know it. One of the realities of your job—which you’ve probably learned already—is that the public will generally be unaware of how much you do. Everyone from the governor on down will take credit for your work, even though they had little or no part in achieving it.
That’s okay. You serve the public’s interests, not your own. Anything is possible if it doesn’t matter who gets the credit.
Best of luck, Carole, and Godspeed.