Leadership – Republican Style: Part II “Jason Atkinson”

When government decides to fill a need for its citizens, every effort should be made to ensure that the citizens receive the maximum benefit intended. Twenty years of Democrat governors have warped that government maxim. Twenty years of Democrat governors has resulted in allegiance to “programs” rather than people.A program, once established, continues unabated. Ronald Reagan once wistfully noted that a government bureaucracy is the closest thing we’ll ever come to seeing “eternal life” on Earth.

The biennial state budget discussion begins with an estimate of the cost of maintaining the program at “current services levels” which is government code for inflation plus program growth. And while in times of economic constriction, such as the last four years, the legislature looks for some efficiencies, it seldom looks at the critical question of whether the program efficiently reaches the stated governmental purpose.

Every government program creates its own vested interests. It has the public employees unions who get a piece of the action because state employees must belong to the public employees unions. Each program has its beneficiaries whether they are low income people who receive direct payments or business who receive tax benefits for special deductions or credits. Each program has its suppliers of products or services whether they are lawyers on retainer or consultants performing research and studies. And along with each of these groups comes an army of lobbyists whose primary job is to protect and increase the status quo. And so it has become the preservation of the program that becomes the singular focus of governmental action.

That issue has become the central theme of Sen. Jason Atkinson’s gubernatorial campaign and he wants to fix that problem. In simple terms, Atkinson wants the money to follow the people, not the programs. He wants to focus on the result, not the process.

And Jason, like every great executive, understands that the solution is more often found in the quality of people than in the “process” adopted. He is fond of describing the way then-Gov. George W. Bush drove the dramatic changes in the Texas bureaucratic system. As described by Atkinson,

“Bush called Dr. Norwood Knight-Richardson (now an Oregon resident) into his office and told him to raise his right hand. Knight-Richardson said, ‘I don’t want a job.’ ‘Precisely’ replied the Governor and then gave Knight-Richardson and Jim Oberwetter 16 months and subpoena power to fix a number of state agencies, starting with the Texas Commission on Alcohol and Drug Abuse which Bush had forced into bankruptcy of mismanagement and failure to account for funds during the previous administration. The books did not balance and the unions and the lobby drove the agenda under former Gov. Anne Richards. Dr Knight-Richardson who coined the phrase ‘people not programs’, threatened a night in jail for one top Texas bureaucrat and suddenly everyone started to talk. It set a tone for how agencies responded to calls for reform and accountability. They knew better than to mess with Gov. Bush and his management team. Oregon’s bureaucrats can expect the same from me.”

Sen. Atkinson notes that he has developed a personal friendship with Dr. Knight-Richardson since he moved to Oregon and he now serves as an informal advisor to Jason.

But it is the understanding that picking the right people, giving them clear direction and providing them the tools with which to accomplish the task that defines leadership.

I remember watching the legislature struggle through five interim sessions in 2001-02 trying to rebalance the budget after significant revenue shortfalls due to the Oregon recession. One budget plan after another failed and in the interim several of the legislators asked me how business would handle such a crises. I reminded them that my former company faced quarterly budget cuts of greater magnitude than the legislature was facing for the biennium. The solution was simple – senior management determined the priorities assigned targeted cuts for the remaining business segments and then looked the managers of those segments in the eye and said, “This is your department, we hired you to run it. If you don’t think you can manage these cuts, let us know and we will get someone who can.” Lo and behold, those who understood their parts of the business best and the consequences of failure were able to deliver those cuts each quarter while maintaining the core functions.

It is that type of direction, incentive and expectation that Jason brings to the table. It is that type of direction and tough mindedness that causes Jason to threaten to veto all legislation after the 100th legislative day if the legislature can deliver an education budget. And trust me, it isn’t just welfare reform that Jason has in his sights. He rightly notes that, currently, education funding has nothing to do with children, that environmental litigation and area closing have nothing to do with a sustainable environment and that trial lawyers are institutionally incapable of working towards tort reform.

Leadership is about finding the right people to solve the right problems. Good for you Sen. Jason Atkinson.