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Idaho bill would move state audit agency under GOP control


BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Lawmakers introduced a bill Wednesday that would eliminate Idaho's only bipartisan legislative committee and place the state's independent auditing agency under Republican control.

Rep. Megan Blanksma, the House Majority Leader, presented the legislation to the House State Affairs Committee. It would do away with the Joint Legislative Oversight Committee — which includes an equal number of Republican and Democratic members — and instead place the Office of Performance Evaluations under the control of the Legislative Council, which has a Republican majority.

It would be a major change for the Office of Performance Evaluations, which was created in 1994 to review state agency activities and evaluate government accountability. The office isn't very well known outside the Statehouse, but in the past three decades it has produced more than 170 reports identifying millions of dollars in potential taxpayer savings and highlighting gaps and inefficiencies in myriad state programs.

Currently lawmakers can send evaluation requests to the Joint Legislative Oversight Committee, which then selects three or four each year to assign to the Office of Performance Evaluation. The deep-dive evaluations can take months, and the findings are presented to the committee in a public meeting and published online.

Blanksma called the bill fairly simple" and likened it to Gov. Brad Little's 2019 Red Tape Reduction Act, which sought to streamline administrative rulebooks by eliminating redundant and unnecessary rules.

Rep. John Gannon, a Democrat from Boise, said he worried the bill would hurt government transparency and eliminate checks and balances by injecting partisanship into the process.

“I don't think anybody should ever fear an independent review of what state government is doing and how the government is spending its money,” Gannon said.

The State Affairs Committee agreed to introduce the legislation on a voice vote, clearing the way for a future hearing.

It’s not the first time lawmakers have floated the idea of stripping the nearly 30-year-old government accountability agency of its independence.

In 2013, Republican Sen. Dean Mortimer of Idaho Falls suggested having the office give legislative committee members private previews of reports before they are released publicly. And in 2007, then-Sen. John McGee, a Republican from Caldwell, suggested that the Joint Legislative Oversight Committee approve the scope of the office’s reports, something critics said could open the reports up to political influence with committee members attempting to shield pet programs or agencies from review.

Still, the reports created by the Office of Performance Evaluations have frequently led to new legislation. One from 2017 identified significant gaps in the state's child protection system and led to additional resources being allocated for social workers, foster parents and others. Lawmakers later created citizen review panels in each of Idaho's seven health districts in response to a follow-up report.

A 2013 report on Idaho's teacher workforce found that there was “an undercurrent of despair among teachers" and many were leaving the state for better-paying jobs elsewhere. Shortly after its release, then-Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter embraced 20 aggressive recommendations to help reshape public schools and attract and retain teachers.

In 2011, analysts found more than $11 million could be saved within five years if the Idaho Transportation Department worked more efficiently. It also found $20 million in one-time savings and more than $6 million in annual savings after five years.

And in 2021, the office found that most of the state's emergency medical services relied entirely on volunteers and lacked resources to meet community needs. In response the Legislature provided $2.5 million for rural ambulances, made it easier for local governments to get federal reimbursement and made it easier for emergency agencies to use a grant for training staffers.

Under Blanksma's legislation, it's not clear if current employees of the office would be retained or if the Legislative Council would appoint a new director and analysts.

“None of us are partying here,” Rakesh Mohan, director of the Office of Performance Evaluations, said Wednesday. “We just saw the bill. There's a lot of ambiguity and vagueness about what will happen to OPE.”

Article Topic Follows: Idaho Politics

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