The Austin Chronicle

Meet the New Boss

The Privatization Route

By Erica C. Barnett, January 15, 1999, News

In other agencies, the shake-ups have hardly been as dramatic as those instituted by Dewhurst. Comptroller Carole Keeton Rylander made her nod to "efficiency" by eliminating 53 of the agency's 2,800 workers, or about 2%. Rylander spokesman Keith Elkins says that those laid off were mainly human resources workers and employee trainers whose jobs could be "outsourced" more cheaply to private firms. The administration retained at least a dozen executive-level staff members, Elkins says, and has not announced any further cuts so far. Elkins says they will "continue to go through the agency looking for areas where we might be able to streamline by moving those functions to the private sector." He acknowledges that privatization "could mean the numbers will change" in the future, but says he doesn't anticipate anything on the scale of Dewhurst's sweeping cuts. Nevertheless, the TSEU says it will be keeping an eye on the agency.

Meanwhile, incoming Attorney General John Cornyn, the first Republican AG in Texas in more than a century, says he will spare his workers from cuts for at least the first six months of his administration. Cornyn's spokesman, Ted Delisi, says it will take at least that long to evaluate where jobs in the agency can be reduced, and that the job-slashing sprees at other agencies won't influence Cornyn's decision to hold off on making cuts of his own. But since Cornyn has announced on several occasions that he would like to turn over as many child support cases as possible to private collection firms, the embattled child support division is sure to be under intense scrutiny when Cornyn is deciding where the ax will fall (see story, p.26). "Child support is number one on his list to find a way to help gain efficiency and improve the performance of the agency," acknowledges Delisi, adding that Cornyn will implement a "thorough reorganization" of the agency after he has had several months to study its inner machinations. So far, Cornyn has vowed only to rid his office of so-called "political hacks," a promise which has many midlevel employees who supported Cornyn's opponent Jim Mattox laying low, hoping their political orientations remain undisclosed.

But many hope Cornyn's prior experience in office -- if not his political leanings -- may lead him to soften his language, and his agency-streamlining ambitions. "Republicans who are unaccustomed to governing and holding these offices often operate under the misperception, and it is a misperception, that these agencies are larded through and through with political hacks who sit around and don't do anything and bleed the taxpayers dry," says former Sharp spokesman Fero. "That is, of course, a total fantasy, but you see Republicans again and again demagoguing on that issue. I don't know if John Cornyn really believes that, but he'll soon learn that it's not the case."

Can't Predict Government

For the most part, lower-level state workers are moving from day to day as always, ignoring the shadow of layoffs that will linger for at least the next several months. Many are cautiously optimistic, anticipating a steady reorganization, not a mass purge. One employee in the attorney general's research division, who strongly supported Mattox during the election but says Cornyn has acted like "a real gentleman" since he came into office, says that in government, nothing stays the same but change. "Change in government's always like the weather. You can't predict it," he says. "Any kind of excessive burden you have, if you can reduce the burden to taxpayers, I think that's good. ... There's places you can cut back and that's okay."

Photo of Dusek

Former Gary Mauro spokesman Ron Dusek

photograph by Jana Birchum

Former Dan Morales spokesman Ron Dusek, who will enter private life as head of a legal system promotion campaign initiated by state bar president Richard Peña, says he doesn't anticipate many political firings in most state agencies. "Politicians understand they can't come in and turn the bucket upside down and fill it with their cronies," he says. "There's a number of functions of these agencies that require individuals that have the institutional knowledge. The politicians are smart enough to know that purging will be ineffective, unless a real doofus has taken office."

Photo of Calhoun

Former Gary Mauro spokesman Ron Calhoun

photograph by Jana Birchum

That means the burden of shake-ups will fall, as it always has, on executive level employees like Ron Calhoun, Garry Mauro's chief information officer, who was "separated from employment" by a 10-line memo during Monday's liquidation. Calhoun says he isn't bitter about his sudden severance. "There are certain jobs in all state agencies which are very close to the person heading that agency," he says. "Those people deserve to have their own people working with them and one of those jobs, certainly, is their public information officer." Calhoun, whose scheduled retirement date is May 3, says he is working out a "contingency plan" to remain on the state payroll for the next three months.

With the 76th Legislature just getting going -- the '99 session officially convened this Tuesday -- and the state agencies still in disarray, most state officeholders are still busy sorting through the wreckage and training top-level staff. Although some staffers in the Class of '99 are longtime state agency veterans -- most notably Billy Hamilton, who returns as deputy comptroller under Rylander after a brief foray into the private world -- many are newcomers fresh from the private sector, coaxed by promises of exciting work, networking opportunities, and a chance at public service.

Cornyn's Recruits

At the attorney general's office, former private-sector employees dominate the upper ranks, many recruited from private law firms to assume positions that pay considerably less than their former salaries. Among Cornyn's top staff appointed so far, nine executive positions have been filled by private lawyers. Those top assistants include first assistant Andy Taylor of Liddell, Sapp, Zivley, Hill and LaBoon, a corporate law firm in Houston; agency ombudsman Elizabeth Rogers of Haynes and Boone, another Houston corporate law firm; and consumer protection head Dean Schaffer of Houston's massive Fulbright and Jaworski. All three firms were major contributors to Cornyn's campaign; Taylor was his campaign treasurer.

Heading up civil appeals, including ongoing litigation in the controversial Hopwood case, is Houston attorney Gregory Coleman, whose 1997 lawsuit against Houston's public schools ended affirmative action in schools where gifted and magnet programs were offered. Austin attorney Shane Phelps (a former assistant AG under Morales, best known in Travis County for his unsuccessful district attorney campaign against Ronnie Earle) will be Cornyn's deputy attorney general for criminal justice. In fact, of Cornyn's top lieutenants announced so far, only three -- special assistant AG Stephen Rosales, child support director Howard Baldwin, and litigation deputy Linda Eads -- do not come from the ranks of private attorneys. "The people that Judge Cornyn has brought in are people that he has worked with in the past and people that he can trust," says spokesman Delisi. They're motivated, Delisi says, by "the opportunity to work for a committed conservative like General Cornyn and the fact that you have great legal experience working for the attorney general's office."

Tom "Smitty" Smith of Public Citizen, a consumer watchdog group, isn't at all surprised by the number of private lawyers being asked to take on public positions in Cornyn's administration; it would be "shocking," he says, if an incoming attorney general did not appoint at least some of his major contributors' lawyers to his administration. "To a large extent, it's payback time. That's the pattern for both Democrats and Republicans," Smith says. "Until such time as we get private money out of public offices, we're going to have private lawyers helping to run our state agencies."

One potential problem with appointing corporate defense lawyers to head up the environmental or consumer protection functions of the agency, Smith says, is that such a lawyer "will have his own set of biases and filters ... that may end up making it a less effective attorney general's [office]."

For the most part, agency watchers -- both Democrats and Republicans -- are adopting a wait-and-see attitude before evaluating the performance of GOP agency heads. Robert Black, communications director for the Republican party of Texas, acknowledges that Republicans who talked tough as candidates will have a lot to answer for as officeholders. "The Republicans on the campaign trail told voters what direction they wanted to take their particular agency in, and now it's time to produce," he says. "That's good. Voters should hold our feet to the fire."

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