Richards Begins to Put Her Stamp on Texas Agencies
AUSTIN, TEXAS — TEXAS Gov. Ann Richards (D) is actively pursuing her promise to build a state government worthy of the people's trust. Governor Richards's flair, humor, and personable charm have proved a stark contrast to previous Texas governors. Whereas her predecessor, Bill Clements (R), was seldom seen in the statehouse, Richards has appeared in the House and Senate chambers an unheard of number of times and even greets tourists in the Capitol halls.
In less than two months in office, she has made state government more reflective of Texas' ethnic makeup by appointing more women and minorities to state boards than any other governor. And her emphasis on consumer and environmental concerns has won public points.
But she must be careful that her activism doesn't backfire, says Harvey Kronberg, editor of a political newsletter. ``There are some danger signs regarding the governor's future legislative effectiveness,'' Mr. Kronberg writes.
Insurance reform. At the top of her agenda is Richards's campaign to make insurance more ``consumer friendly'' and to clean up the ``notoriously lax'' State Board of Insurance.
Last month she threatened to put the board under state control unless two of its three members, both Clements's appointees, resigned. She charged the board was guilty of ``gross fiscal mismanagement'' for not closely monitoring the financial health of Texas insurance companies. One board member resigned, deploring what he called Richards's personal attacks and political pressure. His resignation gave Richards a majority of the board, and she dropped the mismanagement charges.
Richards also forced the resignation of the head of the Texas Department of Commerce, an agency created and staffed by Clements. TDOC is being audited following allegations of illegal use of state funds.
Richards's spokesman, Bill Cryer, denies charges she is targeting Republicans. ``If they were doing their jobs, we wouldn't be'' bothering them, he says.
The environment. Last month Richards called for a moratorium on permits issued to hazardous-waste treatment facilities and pledged to prohibit plants near schools, parks, and water sources.
The move earned immediate gratitude from communities targeted for new waste facilities. ``We're thrilled she took such bold action in response to a very real human problem she encountered on the campaign trail,'' says Brigid Shea, program director for Texas Clean Water Action, an environmental group.
But the wisdom of her action is being questioned. Critics point to stricter Environmental Protection Agency standards increasing the amount of waste classified as hazardous, and wonder if Texas' existing facilities will be sufficient.
State budget. Texas faces a budget shortfall of more than $4.2 billion, not including $1 billion more to meet court-ordered school funding reforms.
Texas' tax structure relies heavily on property, sales, and franchise taxes. While a handful of business groups and lawmakers are calling for an overhaul of the state's tax structure, possibly a state income tax, Richards maintains an income tax is not on her agenda.
Although lukewarm on a state lottery during the primary, Richards promised during the general election to lobby for a lottery bill. But she pushed so hard many grew resentful. The bill failed twice in the House. Richards called upon those opposing the lottery to take responsibility for new taxes.
Kronberg says he has been ``bemused'' by the governor's heavy-handedness toward lawmakers. ``It has certainly played well to the public,'' he says. ``[But we have yet to see] whether [she] is a substantive heavyweight or simply a media presence.''
Others find her activism a refreshing change. ``She's taken an office that's damn near impotent, and is seeking any way to push her programs,'' says Gary Wood, president of the business-backed Texas Research League. ``You've got to admire that.''