A panel of lawmakers is looking at making changes to Idaho's only independent performance evaluations agency, possibly by having staffers focus more on legislative budgets and less on whether state programs are working properly.
The Office of Performance Evaluations does deep-dive research and auditing of state agencies and programs, looking for ways the state can fix any problems and become more efficient. Often the reports have uncovered big issues, such as increasing delays in the parole process, rapidly growing caseloads for child welfare workers and problems with the monitoring of state contracts worth millions of dollars.
During a Legislative Council meeting on Friday, Legislative Services Director Eric Milstead gave a presentation on how other states utilize their performance evaluations offices. The report was done at the council's request, after GOP Rep. Wendy Horman asked for the information.
Horman, who is also the vice-chair of the legislature's budget-writing committee, said the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee needs more people available to quickly research and answer questions about the impact of state budgeting decisions. She wanted to know if OPE staffers could be utilized to handle the quick-turn budget questions as well.
But other lawmakers on the Legislative Council objected, saying OPE already has a full workload getting lawmakers valuable, nonpartisan information about where state government systems are working and where they need to be improved.
The Joint Legislative Oversight Committee oversees OPE, directing it to research certain topics based on requests made by lawmakers. Idaho law says the joint committee must be made up of equal numbers of Republicans and Democrats — a rarity in a state where the vast majority of elected officials are Republicans.
Horman said the budget-writing committee would benefit from having access to quicker, more frequent analysis of spending decisions.
"It just seems to me that this analysis of spending and performance should be an even more routine part of the legislative process as a whole, and you should not have to win the JLOC lottery to get what should be routine questions answered on behalf of the taxpayers," Horman said.
But House Minority Leader Mat Erpelding said the right solution would be to add more resources to the budget-writing committee and the Legislative Services Office, which works to quickly answer questions from lawmakers and help them with bill-writing, among other duties.
He said shifting the focus of OPE would have unintended consequences, and noted that strong, factual research takes time.
"We have different divisions for different reasons, and if we suddenly try to go after one statutorily defined operatio because we don't have enough resources in another, there will be unintended consequences," Erpelding said. "We should put the resources in LSO (the Legislative Services Office) and not cannibalize another organization that does different things for different reasons."