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By W. Gardner Selby April 15, 2010

Bill White objects to what he calls "Soviet-style" budget management by Republican leaders

In a public interview hosted by the Austin-based Texas Tribune, Democratic gubernatorial nominee Bill White compared Republican leadership on state budget woes to how things swung in ye olde U.S.S.R.

You remember, the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics -- home of the late dictator Joseph Stalin and run single-handedly by the Communist Party prior to the government's collapse in 1991.

White said March 9 he’d take a more deliberate approach to spending than the state's top leaders, all Republican, who asked government agencies in January to suggest ways to cut their budgets by 5 percent. White said if he's in charge, "it won’t be done by things that are just across the board, Soviet style, you know, budget management that only career politicians seem to embrace."

Pressed by interviewer Evan Smith, White said: "Is it just a coincidence that 5 percent is the appropriate amount for each state agency?... No. It’s because that’s the way that career politicians know how to run government."

We started our review of White's statement wondering what "Soviet-style" budget management means. Several expert professors said that historically, the term didn't refer to across-the-board budget cuts.

Professor Paul Gregory of the University of Houston Department of History said "Soviet style" makes him think of a monopoly party (in this case, the Communist Party) dictating everything to subordinates without any possibility of change. Gregory said Soviet-style budgeting also means hiding expenditures you don’t want people to see—such as massive investments in military infrastructure.

Peter Caldwell, a Rice University professor of history, said budget-writing in the Soviet Union most often consisted of “huge and crude” decisions to invest in one part of the economy at the expense of another.

And H. Stephen Gardner, chairman of the Baylor University Department of Economics, said he’d define Soviet-style management as overly centralized as opposed to giving autonomy to individual units of government.

So are there "Soviet style" ways that state leaders have approached the budget?

Some background: In January, Gov. Rick Perry, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and House Speaker Joe Straus--mindful of a projected state revenue shortfall that could reach $15 billion by next January--jointly asked agencies to submit plans identifying savings in 5 percent “priority increments” in their 2010-11 appropriations from state revenue. Such plans could lead to cuts, though no decisions have been made and some programs have already been excused.

No doubt, the leaders' request is a centralized one. But is it Soviet-style in any other way? We turned to White for elaboration.

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White’s campaign pointed us to a statement issued by White, the former Houston mayor, in January: “Well-run organizations cut spending based on priorities and where they can best attain productivity improvements. So, for example, in the city of Houston we made smaller cuts in public safety because that was the highest priority. And we were able to cut more in garbage collection and disposal through productivity improvements.”

White then told us that by "Soviet style," he doesn't mean that Texas state government owns the means of production, as in the Soviet Union. “Obviously we have a market system,” White said.

He described his alternative approach to the looming revenue gap, saying that as governor, he'd focus on funding priorities such as education while encouraging agencies to improve productivity via "process re-engineering" without hurting the delivery of services to taxpayers. He said the state also would seek savings by renegotiating vendor contracts. Also, he said, there’d be regular meetings with agency chiefs to talk about how they’re cutting spending and avoiding non-essential hirings.

“I would have had reports back to me weekly and monthly concerning the efficiencies identified,” White said. We didn't get to why White considers the existing approach "Soviet style" before he had to go.

We asked the professors if "Soviet style" accurately characterizes the GOP leaders' request for proposed budget cuts.

Gregory said describing the request from Perry, et al. that way “doesn’t seem to have any relevance to what was actually practiced in the Soviet Union. ... It's inappropriate to use that term."

Gardner agreed, saying: "It’s a bit hyperbolic to refer to this (budget cutting) as Soviet style. I should admit I have done exactly the same thing myself on matters of budgeting.”

The point of saying as much, Gardner said, is to elicit an emotional reaction. He added that Republicans who cast President Barack Obama as socialist — Perry has told reporters he thinks Obama has socialist beliefs — are likewise guilty of hyperbole for dramatic effect. The professor, who said he considers Obama a centrist, speculated that Noam Chomsky, a left-leaning linguist who writes on public affairs, would call the president a "crazed capitalist."

"If White’s point is that budget management is being handled in an overly centralized way," Gardner said, "I can see the element of truth there. The problem I would have is even if you say I am going to be more careful and more surgically look at the right places to cut, you’re still using a more centralized approach.”

Caldwell agreed with the psychological impact, if not the accuracy, of "Soviet style." Generally, he said, “anyone who ever mentions the Soviet economy or Naziism when they’re talking about American domestic debate is usually off track. They’re referring to crude examples to raise the stakes of a debate. They’re not necessarily wanting a careful, rational debate. Who in America wants the Soviet economy or supports Naziism?”

Our conclusion? The GOP leaders' request that agencies submit proposed budget cuts isn’t Soviet style — not even close.

At best, White's statement is an example of how politicians try to light up a room. It's so off base, we're lighting up the meter: Pants on Fire!

Our Sources

The Bond Buyer, “TRENDS IN THE REGION: Texas Hole Could Grow Bigger; But State in Decent Shape, Raters Say,” March 30, 2010

Interview, Peter C. Caldwell, professor of History and German & Slavic Studies, Rice University, April 6, 2010

Interview, Paul Gregory, professor, Cullen Distinguished Chair of Economics, University of Houston, April 7, 2010

Interview, H. Stephen Gardner, Herman Brown professor of Economics, Baylor University, April 12, 2010

Interview, Bill White, April 12, 2010, “Rick Perry taps into fear of Washington,” March 2, 2010

State of Texas, letter to state agencies from Gov. Rick Perry, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and House Speaker Joe Straus, Jan. 15, 2010

The Texas Tribune, "2010: White Starts the Argument (Updated)," March 9, 2010

The Texas Tribune, "Video: A Conversation With Bill White," (includes audio alternative) March 12, 2010

The Washington Post, “Sen. Hutchison struggles in challenge to Texas Gov. Rick Perry,” Feb. 27, 2010

Bill White campaign, “Bill responds to Gov. Perry’s announced budget cuts,” Jan. 15, 2010

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Bill White objects to what he calls "Soviet-style" budget management by Republican leaders

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