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Politics & Government

Idaho Republicans Want To Move Independent Watchdog Office In-House

James Dawson
Boise State Public Radio

State lawmakers are considering moving the legislature’s independent watchdog division under their supervision.

Legislative leaders Friday morning discussed transferring the Office of Performance Evaluations (OPE) to the Legislative Services Office (LSO), stressing that it would still be able to independently perform its oversight duties under the new umbrella.

OPE is directed to conduct investigations by lawmakers on the Joint Legislative Oversight Committee (JLOC). The potential restructuring would split staff time between investigations into state agencies and analyzing how efficiently lawmakers are spending taxpayer money.

OPE has released several blockbuster reports in recent years, including one that found “a culture of constant crisis” at a state-run mental health treatment center that had a history of staff abuse and neglect.

Another report discovered that not all children in Idaho were being assigned a public defender or a court-appointed guardian while they were involved in child protection cases, as required by law.

State Rep. Wendy Horman (R-Idaho Falls), who is a vice chair of the Joint Finance and Appropriations Committee, said OPE’s staff would be a big help in analyzing how to most effectively spend state dollars as the budget has grown in recent years.

“You should not have to win the JLOC lottery to get what should be routine questions answered on behalf of the taxpayers,” Horman said.

House Minority Leader Mat Erpelding (D-Boise), who is one of the co-chairs of JLOC, said he understands the need for hiring more staff to ensure Idaho is spending taxpayer money wisely. But he said it shouldn’t be at the expense of diminishing the office’s independence and watchdog duties.

“I think we should advocate to put more resources in that part of LSO and not cannibalize another organization that does a lot of different things, for different purposes,” said Erpelding.

Horman described the discussion Friday as an “exploratory conversation,” but said she was looking into drafting a bill that would bring OPE under further legislative supervision.

“These are highly skilled, valuable employees to this state, but I think it’s time to have a conversation about the functionality of it,” she said.

House Speaker Scott Bedke (R-Oakley) pushed back on the interpretation from several Democrats that the move would dilute the ability of OPE to conduct long-term, analytical oversight of state agencies. Like Horman, he sees a potential restructure as another commitment to fiscal responsibility.

“This is about stepping back and seeing if Investment A does indeed have Return B and being able to verify that quickly,” Bedke said.

Any attempts to restructure OPE would need approval from both the House and the Senate before going to Gov. Brad Little’s (R) desk for consideration.

Follow James Dawson on Twitter @RadioDawson for more local news.

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