House committee approves putting watchdog office under partisan control
Republicans, in a straight party line vote Tuesday morning, advanced a bill out of committee that would place the legislature’s independent watchdog under the direction of the partisan Legislative Council.
Currently, the Office of Performance Evaluation (OPE) is overseen by the Joint Legislative Oversight Committee (JLOC), which is the only body equally represented by Republicans and Democrats. That committee would be eliminated under the proposal.
Legislative Council is controlled by the GOP, which represents more than 80% of seats in the House and Senate.
“I appreciate that so many people think that I am nefarious in doing this, but the fact of the matter is OPE remains independent and does the study itself,” argued House Majority Leader Megan Blanksma (R-Hammett), who’s pushing the bill.
But Blanksma’s proposal would narrow the scope of what could be investigated.
Under current law, lawmakers on JLOC can authorize OPE to analyze cities, counties and political subdivisions of the state that can levy, collect and spend taxpayer dollars.
Blanksma’s bill would limit those investigations to executive agencies of state government while exempting political offices – including the legislature and judicial branches.
Both Democrats on the House State Affairs Committee raised concerns about the potential loss of the office as it’s currently structured.
“Partisanship tends to lead to cronyism,” said Rep. John Gannon (D-Boise). “It tends to provide more favoritism towards certain interests and certain activities that a nonpartisan committee would do.”
But Blanksma pushed back, saying Legislative Council better represents the interests of the voters, given the GOP’s supermajority, instead of the status quo.
“I would argue that would be more reflective of what you’re saying cronyism might be, in that there’s a disproportional representation of the minority on JLOC,” she said.
None of the eight people who testified supported the bill.
“I want to know that there is not a partisan fox of any color in the hen house when decisions are made that impact my life and the fiscal health of the state of Idaho,” said Susan King, a resident of Boise.
Christine Pisani, the executive director of the Idaho Council on Developmental Disabilities, cited two recent reports by OPE that have made a difference in her work and in her life.
Those include a 2020 analysis that found patients with Alzheimer’s and dementia in Idaho die at consistently higher rates than the national average and that the state had made “little progress” on its plan to address the health conditions.
Another from 2019outlined troubles at the embattled Southwest Idaho Treatment Center, which served people who were considered to be dangerously mentally ill.
“The transparency the state is afforded by maintaining the structure and function of the Joint Legislative Oversight Committee directing the Office of Performance Evaluation is necessary to the integrity citizens rely on…” Pisani said.
Republicans who supported the bill echoed Blanksma’s talking points, saying OPE wouldn’t be prevented from conducting these types of investigations.
The entire House could consider the issue later this week.
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