Idaho lawmakers consider shifting resources from audits to budgets

A panel of Idaho lawmakers is looking at making changes to the state’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.

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. (AP)