Dear Carole

Your next four years as state comptroller are going to be taxing. I should know.

To: The Honorable
Carole Keeton Rylander,
Comptroller of Public Accounts
From: John Sharp

Dear Carole,

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.

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