Mississippi Ag Administrator Cuts Government

President Bush has often been justly criticized as a "big government conservative." But one Bush appointee who is working to make government smaller is Nick Walters, who since 2001 has been director of the Department of Agriculture’s Rural Development office in Mississippi. Walters, 39, has battled career bureaucrats and local officials to shrink the size and cost of a federal agency that administers approximately $200 million annually in the Magnolia State.

"After I was appointed by President Bush, I found that there was very little accountability in the agency," said Walters, who once interned for Sen. Trent Lott (R.-Miss.) before becoming a businessman in Jackson, Miss. "Unlike a business, things that didn’t get done just went undone." According to the Mississippi Business Journal, for example, one application for $7.5 million in USDA Rural Development funds had lingered for months, and some of the agency’s offices had a per loan overhead costs of up to $52,000."

"Any business would never stand for this," said Walters. Following an analysis of the overhead cost of its offices, he concluded that to administer the agency more efficiently, some of the offices had to be closed and some of the personnel fired. In three years, he reduced the number of regional offices from eight to six and county offices from 53 to 24. He cut employees from 242 to 227. The annual operating budget of the USDA Rural Development agency in Mississippi went from $19 million in 2001 to $14 million in 2004.

Is it difficult for a federal manager to actually fire a federal employee for not being productive? "No question about it," Walters said, recalling how he warned a holdover employee from the previous administration to either come in to work when everyone else did or leave. The employee, who was in a wheelchair, "warned me ‘You wouldn’t dare’ and said I couldn’t take the negative publicity of firing a disabled person," said Walters. He took the risk and fired him, adding, "I felt he was doing a disservice to people who do come to work and perform in spite of a personal adversity — like my scheduler, who happens to be blind."

Walters is proud to live up to a familiar credo: "So there will be no misunderstanding, it is not my intention to do away with government. It is rather to make it work — work with us, not over us; to stand by our side, not ride on our back. Government can and must provide opportunity, not smother it; foster productivity, not stifle it."

Those are the words of Ronald Reagan in his 1981 Inaugural Address.