Legislative Council 11-8-19

Idaho’s Legislative Council meets at the state Capitol on Friday.

The Legislative Council, the joint committee chaired by the House speaker and the Senate president pro-tem that handles legislative matters between sessions, is meeting at the Capitol today, and so far has spent much of its morning in a heated discussion over a proposal from Rep. Wendy Horman, R-Idaho Falls, to repurpose some of the state’s Office of Performance Evaluation staff to provide more budget analysis, including quick-turnaround analyses of whether state budget investments are paying off.

Several members of the council vociferously objected to the idea; you can read my full story here at idahopress.com (subscription required), or pick up Saturday's edition of the Idaho Press. Opponents noted that the OPE is an independent office of the Legislature, created by statute and overseen by a bipartisan joint legislative committee, that’s brought to light major issues about various state programs, from child welfare to parole to state computer system contracts, through in-depth research. Idaho’s office also has won numerous national awards and accolades.

Horman, the House vice-chair of the budget-writing Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee, said OPE has about the same amount of staff as JFAC, about 11 people each, and JFAC increasingly needs research done about the impact of state investments. “It just seems to me that this analysis of spending and performance should be a much more, even more routine part of the legislative process as a whole,” she said, “and you should not have to win the JLOC lottery to get what should be routine questions answered on behalf of the taxpayers.”

That was a reference to the bipartisan Joint Legislative Oversight Committee, which oversees OPE and selects the topics on which in-depth performance evaluation reports are conducted each year. By law, JLOC is evenly divided by party. It receives requests from lawmakers each year for topics for evaluations, and selects the ones that goes forward.

At the Legislative Council’s request, Services Director Eric Milstead presented a report on similar operations in other states. House Minority Leader Mat Erpelding, D-Boise, questioned why the council was examining that.

Horman said, “How we access information has just changed, and the level of analysis that’s required. I’m looking at this from the perspective of where I sit, and that is as vice chair of Appropriations on the House side. Nobody’s talking about eliminating JLOC. Nobody’s talking about eliminating that. These are highly skilled, valuable employees to this state. But I think it’s time to have a conversation about the functionality of it, and if there are ways that in addition to the very big deep extensive studies they do that take a long time, if there are ways that we can incorporate analysis of budgeting, or performance analysis of the investments that we’re making into the work.”

Erpelding responded, “So what I heard is we are 100 percent comfortable with the reports that come out from OPE, even if we disagree with them when they come out, but we would like to find a way to increase their workload because other areas are understaffed. Is that what I heard?”

Horman said no; she said she’s instead talking about a shift in workload. “What we have seen is the need for workload to shift over to reports that can be created in a little bit more timely manner, specifically, from my seat, around budgets,” she said.

Sen. Abby Lee, R-Fruitland, said she thinks it’s always important to look at what other states are doing and whether there are lessons for Idaho. “But for me the real question is should this continue to remain outside and independent," she said. "When we make, I think, budgetary decisions … those are political, those are normative, those are value-based judgments. When we pass or don’t pass a budget, that’s part of our political process and it’s the job of the Legislature. When we are looking at evaluation,” she said, it’s “separate and independent. As much as possible it takes it out of that political arena.”

Lee, who serves on JFAC, noted that she worked with JLOC on three studies regarding Idaho’s child welfare system. “Some of it wasn’t exactly the outcome that I was expecting. … I was able to check myself,” and move beyond her own perspective to better understand the situation, she said. “To the extent possible, I still want to be able to separate that evaluation from ... the partisan process that is just necessarily part of our process.”

Erpelding said, “I get it that the vice chair of JFAC feels like she needs more resources in JFAC.” But he said the answer to that is to put more resources there, “not cannibalize another organization that does a lot of different things for different purposes.”

The Legislative Council made no decision after its lengthy discussion. House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, said afterward that he agrees with Horman about the need for speedier budget analysis. “She came to me with it, but I agree with her,” he said. “We’re not going to jettison what’s working at all. But we’d like to apply some of that model to expand it.”

Former House Speaker Bruce Newcomb, who co-sponsored the original legislation creating OPE and JLOC – weathering vetoes from then-Gov. Cecil Andrus – was in the audience. He said it makes sense that Idaho needs more in-depth budget analysis to examine the results of its investments, and said with current technology, that should be easier to do than ever before. But the performance evaluation function, he said, is “an important function.” He said he’s taken heat from fellow Republicans for years for making JLOC evenly split between the parties. “The fact is, you need somebody that is a fact-finder,” Newcomb said.

“I think OPE’s working really well,” Newcomb said, “and it does have national and even international recognition.”

Betsy Z. Russell is the Boise bureau chief and state capitol reporter for the Idaho Press and Adams Publishing Group. Follow her on Twitter at @BetsyZRussell.

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