State-funded mental health services are only reaching 19 percent of eligible Texans. A shortage of funding for newborn screenings has contributed to delays for 75 percent of infants’ initial test results. And dozens of high-value contracts between state agencies and private consulting firms may not be legally binding because of paperwork errors.
These are among the findings in a series of reports that a key legislative agency, overseen by Texas House and Senate leaders, withheld from the public.
Since 2005, state lawmakers have received copies of the biennial reports, which are intended to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of Texas government, in the early days of the legislative session. Authored by the staff of the Legislative Budget Board, an agency that tracks how state funds are spent, the reports have led lawmakers to file hundreds of bills seeking to fix problems identified by state researchers.
But this legislative session, the reports weren’t made public — despite being completed months ago, according to people familiar with the documents. A spokesman for the legislative agency said it is up to its governing board, co-chaired by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, to decide when the items will be published.
As transparency advocates sound the alarm about the specter of politically motivated censorship, the agency and its board have failed to offer an explanation for leaving the works unpublished. Both Bonnen and Patrick said they approved the reports for wide release, but the legislative agency they oversee declined to release them. (Update: The Legislative Budget Board published the efficiency report Monday evening after inquiries from The Texas Tribune.)
The reports are “fact-based, analytical audits of state policies that help all of us see where government can be more efficient and effective,” said Luis Figueroa, a former Texas Senate staffer and current legislative and policy director at the Center for Public Policy Priorities, a left-leaning think tank. “It makes no sense to censor LBB recommendations, which contribute to good governance of our state and responsible use of resources."
The Texas Tribune obtained copies of the efficiency reports, which discuss 36 topics and span 340 pages, after they were recently shared with a handful of lawmakers. They detail outcomes of a mixed bag of state government policies. Targeted pay raises for Child Protective Services caseworkers from 2016, for example, appear to have reduced turnover and improved agency morale, while a privatized system for providing health care to children with disabilities “has not met contract standards,” according to the authors.
With only seven weeks remaining in the 2019 legislative session, the absence of the documents, formerly compiled into a single Government Effectiveness and Efficiency Report, is striking. A crucial bill-filing deadline has already passed. And the state budget, to which lawmakers append “riders” that direct state agencies to make certain reforms, is nearing final negotiations.
Current and former legislators say the reports are a useful source of information in the lawmaking process. In 2013, for example, 67 of the 143 legislative recommendations compiled by the budget board were ultimately adopted, according to the agency.
“We used them, certainly, as a source, if not the only source,” said former state Sen. Bob Deuell, a Greenville Republican. “I always felt the [Legislative Budget Board] was pretty straightforward about things, and I always looked at it as being good information.”
This isn’t the first time that the report has come under fire from high-ranking politicians, but 2019 marked the first year for it not to be formally published or made available on the agency’s website until late into the legislative session. The Texas Tribune is posting the reports in full.