National Group Warns Idaho Lawmakers To Not Transform Independent Watchdog Office

Dec 16, 2019

A national group of public servants and academics is urging Idaho political leaders to not take away the independence of the legislature’s watchdog office.

During a committee meeting last month, Idaho lawmakers floated the idea of stripping away the independence of the Office of Performance Evaluation (OPE) and reorganizing it under the Legislative Services Office (LSO).

LSO is made up of nonpartisan staff, but it ultimately answers to a committee of legislative leaders that is made up of eight Republicans and six Democrats. OPE is currently overseen by a legislative committee that’s evenly split between both parties.

In addition to conducting long-term investigations, lawmakers would have OPE staff prioritize analyzing the budget to figure out how best to spend taxpayer money.

In November, Rep. Wendy Horman (R-Idaho Falls), who is a vice chair of the Joint Finance and Appropriations Committee, said she was considering writing a bill to make these shifts.

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

News reports on the issue caught the attention of Richard Greene, who chairs the Center for Accountability and Performance. It’s a group of professionals that outline the best way for agencies across the country to see how effective their programs are, or in some cases, how much they’ve failed.

Greene said he’s starting to see partisan lawmakers across the country peel away the independence of these offices or ax them altogether.

“The diminishment of these kinds of shops I would not describe as an epidemic, but I would [describe it] as [a] disturbing trend,” he said.

So, Greene and his fellow board members wrote a letter to Gov. Brad Little (R), House Speaker Scott Bedke (R-Oakley) and Senate Pro Tem Brent Hill (R-Rexburg) urging them to reconsider restructuring OPE. He said the state would lose a valuable resource by doing so.

“It loses the capacity to do deep digs into either agencies or departments or programs in the state that have support by whatever party is running the shop,” Greene said.

And once that choice has been made, Greene and the board said it’s hard to recapture a staff with similar capabilities.

“…it is either lost for good – or it will take many years to recruit and retrieve the critical mix of skill sets that are necessary to replicate the original program evaluation capacity,” the letter states.

Rakesh Mohan, the director of Idaho’s OPE, serves on the board of the Center for Accountability and Performance, but Greene says Mohan did not notify the group about the potential change and wasn’t involved in writing the letter.

“I do not remember anything that would be a threat to the agency,” Hill said in an email, referring to the November meeting where legislative leaders discussed the potential restructuring.

Bedke didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment. During that same meeting, though, he expressed skepticism that OPE staff wouldn’t still be able to complete in-depth investigations in addition to crunching budget numbers.

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

A spokeswoman says the governor doesn’t comment on potential legislation.

A recent op-ed by former Idaho House Speaker Bruce Newcomb and former state Supreme Court Justice Jim Jones called any move to distract from OPE’s current mission would be a “mistake.”

“There is a place for quick and dirty decision-making but it should not supplant the deliberative approach that has been so effective with the OPE,” they wrote. “Why throw out or hamstring an office that is working and producing results for the benefit of taxpayers?”

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