Costs on Abbott’s biggest project as AG rise $64M


Paul J. Weber, Associated Press

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) – Suing the federal government 30 times and bringing polygamist leader Warren Jeffs to justice is how Republican Greg Abbott built his profile. But his biggest project as Texas attorney general is a bureaucratic fixer-upper that’s $64 million over the original budget.

The favorite to succeed Gov. Rick Perry next year, Abbott has given a consulting giant more money and oversight to fix missteps on a massive technology overhaul in Texas’ child support division, which last year led the nation with more than $3.6 billion in collections.

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The revamp to streamline and automate cases is expected to be finished by 2017, when child support cases in Texas are expected to drastically increase. But the original $210 million price tag has climbed 30 percent, and federally required expert reviews obtained by The Associated Press have raised skepticism about meeting that deadline.

Aides to Abbott say changes are underway and the overhaul, known as the “T2” initiative, is on track to finish five months early. Their optimism comes after giving lead contractor Accenture LLP an additional $30 million and more responsibility under a revised contract signed in April – two months after an outside February report described the project as being “at a major crossroad” following a management shake-up.

“There’s a sense of urgency on everyone’s part. We’re doing everything to ensure the state funds are properly utilized and that we deliver a quality product,” said Charles Smith, who took over the child support division last fall.

For Abbott, who has vowed government efficiency and streamlining if elected governor in November, critical expert reviews and rising costs cast unusual scrutiny on a division that has been a quiet point of pride since he took office in 2003.

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Highly technical and voluminous expert reviews obtained by the AP under open records laws have raised issues with management, missed milestones and quality concerns. Both federal officials and Abbott’s office emphasized that the reports, written by University of Texas at Austin faculty, are designed specifically to identify concerns, not highlight achievements.

But the reports have raised issues that appear to be more than nitpicking. Reviewers criticized managers for abiding by a timeline that is “considered golden but is not real” and raised warning about substandard work that could escalate costs down the road.

In a statement, Abbott said that under his watch, the child support system in Texas has collected more money than any other state and ranked first in collections for every dollar spent, “making Texas the most efficient and effective child support system in the country.”

Smith took over in October for Alicia Key, who had run the state’s child support enforcement division for nearly a decade and now works for Xerox Inc., which processes child support payments for the state. Key’s departure was not related to the technology overhaul, Abbott spokesman Jerry Strickland said.

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The project ranks among the biggest contracts for Accenture in Texas since lawmakers in 2007 terminated an $899 million deal to outsource social services such as applying for Medicaid and food stamps. Technical and operational problems were rampant, and lawmakers voted to end the privatization experiment after widespread rebuke.

The total cost of the T2 project is now $274 million, according to Abbott’s office, two-thirds of which will be picked up by the federal government’s Office of Child Support Enforcement.

Kenneth Wolfe, a spokesman for the federal agency, said concerns raised by the reports have “continually been satisfactorily addressed” and that fixes to the problems often get underway before the reports are formally published.

Herb Kranser, a University of Texas professor leading the expert review, said his contract with the attorney general’s office did not allow him to speak to the media. Accenture spokesman Joe Dickie said the project is scheduled to end as planned in 2017 and referred further comment to the state.

In January, the federal government hired Accenture to take over the maligned website that frustrated millions of Americans trying to obtain insurance under the new health law.