April 30, 2010
State senators had sharp questions for the Texas comptroller’s office Thursday about the much-derided launch of an appliance rebate program earlier this month.
At an economic development committee hearing, Sen. Chris Harris, R-Arlington , and others grilled officials about program foul-ups.
And they weren’t happy with the responses from stimulus program manager Lisa Elledge and Deputy Comptroller Martin Hubert.
“The process was such a fiasco,” said Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo . “It was pathetic.”
When the rebate program launched April 7, thousands of Texans could not get through to phone banks or a website set up to handle requests for $23 million in rebates for energy-efficient appliances.
Harris and others said they heard from constituents who were furious because they spent hours trying to get through.
Elledge responded that the process “did not go as smoothly as we wanted it to go.”
The senators pressed Elledge and Hubert about how their office chose Helgeson Enterprises Inc. to run the program and its response after similar problems occurred in Helgeson-run programs in Minnesota and Iowa.
The comptroller’s office took a number of steps in an effort to head off a repeat in Texas, Elledge said.
“Everything looked like it was going to go off smoothly,” she said. “Again, we don’t know what happened that morning.”
The comptroller’s office said 38,864 Texans got guaranteed rebates, and an additional 59,600 were put on a wait list.
Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, pressed the issue of the comptroller’s office response after it learned of the Minnesota and Iowa problems.
“Did it occur to your office, at that point in time, that Texas is bigger and might have more people calling in and you might have a bigger problem?”
“That’s why we did take a hard look at those cases; we tried to determine what caused them, and we worked very hard to try to rectify that before we moved forward,” Elledge responded.
“And it didn’t work,” Watson said. “We can all agree to that, right?”
“The launch did not run smoothly, but people are in the system, and they’re participating,” Elledge said.
Watson: “Would you be willing to agree with me that the phrase, ‘The launch did not run smoothly,’ is an understatement?”
“It did not go as we anticipated, no, sir,” Elledge said.
“Would you be willing to say to the committee that the launch was, in fact, badly done?” he asked.
“I would say it was badly done,” Hubert responded.
Elledge said the state would compare the performance requirements in Helgeson’s contract with information it has requested about what went wrong that morning.
Watson later asked if the comptroller’s office had applied performance standards to itself “to figure out whether that was done well and should have resulted in a better outcome.”
“I think we’re looking at everything that happened with the program,” Elledge responded. “And could we have made different decisions? Possibly, but we need to wait until we get the data to really find out what happened to the website and why it failed.”
Harris wasn’t satisfied.
“I’ve not heard anything in your answers that I can go back and tell my constituents — other than it (was) a screw-up, and it’s still a screw-up,” he said.