How Closing Government Doors Strikes the American Public

Some politicians win votes by abolishing their own positions

MARTHA WHITEHEAD wrote - and signed - her own pink slip.

The Texas state treasurer ran for office last year with the sole purpose of abolishing the post. She won. And Mrs. Whitehead, a Democrat, has kept her promise.

In an era when downsizing government is as de rigueur as whole-wheat doughnuts, Whitehead and a growing number of politicians are taking the philosophy to its extreme by lopping off the limb of government where they sit.

Last month, South Carolina's Secretary of State Jim Miles vowed to padlock his office for good.

He says that by transferring 20 of the 26 employees in his office to other agencies, he can save the state $300,000 by eliminating six jobs - including his.

''We just need to rethink all this stuff,'' he told local reporters.

Some question Miles's motives, given that he has already filed as a candidate for the US Senate. But Miles reportedly said that it was a logical progression, noting that he had already halved the number of employees in his office since taking over in 1991.

IN Texas, Whitehead's campaign promise was fulfilled when voters approved Tuesday a constitutional amendment abolishing the state treasurer's office.

Whitehead, a no-nonsense former history teacher, hospital administrator, community activist and small town mayor will spend the next year folding the treasurer's office into that of the state controller.

And the word is spreading that Whitehead is eyeballing a run for the Texas Railroad Commission. Her alleged platform: Let's abolish that agency, too.

But eliminating the Railroad Commission could be a tougher task. Unlike her current office, the Railroad Commission is headed by three elected members. Three Republican members currently.

Whitehead, a longtime Democratic Party stalwart tapped in 1993 by former Gov. Ann Richards to succeed Kay Bailey Hutchinson, who left the treasurer's post for the US Senate, has not publicly declared plans for another run for political office. But she says the railroad commissioner is ''the kind of job that interests me, where I would be an agent of change.''

Mrs. Whitehead proudly calls herself a straight-talking reformer, asking, ''Do you want to maintain the status quo? Do you want government to operate the way it has always operated, or are you here to make changes?''

The conservative Republican who succeeded her as mayor of the east Texas town of Longview, however, calls her ''an extremely good politician,'' who streamlined city council meetings by speeding through the agenda with little public debate.

''Martha is a very strong, opinionated lady, [who] knows where she wants to lead,'' I.J. Patterson says. ''And she has done a reasonably good job of getting there. We agreed on very little. We agreed to be cordial to each other.''

Though the idea of abolishing the treasurer's office had been kicked about in Capitol circles for 10 years or more, Whitehead's zest for the idea, honed in 13 years of trying to hold down costs as a private-sector hospital administrator, became apparent when as she announced her intention to have the agency abolished.

By eliminating the treasurer's office, she estimates the state can save $8 million a year. She reasons that the controller's office, which already collects taxes, is best suited to manage and invest the state's funds. While abolishing a state agency would seem to jibe nicely with the current GOP zeal to trim government, the Republican Party of Texas officially opposed Whitehead's campaign to have a referendum placed on the Nov. 7 ballot. Republicans say it would eliminate important checks and balances on state finances.

And they were none too pleased with her timing.

''Now that the Republicans are winning those seats, Democrats now see the light to eliminate these offices,'' says Royal Masset, political director of the Texas Republican Party. ''I don't think [Lt. Gov. Bob] Bullock would ever have challenged Ann Richards to eliminate the treasurer because everybody was looking for her to go onto other things. As soon as Kay Bailey takes over and [then] becomes senator, it's like scorched earth. They've been shifting the rules and seeing the light only as we gain power.''

There are also those who argue that elected offices with limited power, such as the treasurer, are good training grounds for higher public office. For example, both Richards and Hutchinson were state treasurers.

Whether Whitehead will follow in their footsteps or head back to the private sector, the lame-duck treasurer will only say, ''My decision is not to close the door on anything.''

But it's clear Whitehead has been doing some thinking about the railroad commissioner's office.

She notes that, like the treasurer's agency, the railroad commission has seen its duties eroded through its 104-year-old evolution.

As the primary state agency for the regulation of the oil and gas industries and intrastate transportation, the anachronistic-sounding commission once wielded considerable power. The oil bust of the 1980s and the preemption of its regulatory authority over railroads and trucking by the federal government have sapped much of its clout. Tthe agency still carries a staff of 830 full-time employees and a $50 million annual budget, primarily to regulate natural-gas utilities and surface mining.

''I think that might be something worth looking at,'' Whitehead says.

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