Senator suggests secret review by lawmakers before releasing OPE reports

From AP/Eye on Boise

Sen. Dean Mortimer, R-Idaho Falls, has been pushing to let lawmakers review reports from the Legislature’s Office of Performance Evaluations in closed meetings and suggest changes before they’re released publicly, the AP reports. The OPE conducts detailed and often controversial investigations into how state agencies operate and points to savings, efficiencies or improvements; its director, Rakesh Mohan, staunchly opposes any such change in the rules because it would alter the office’s  independence and credibility.

“What happens in executive session is not public,” Mohan told the AP. “How easy would it be for me to say no if they want something changed? They are my bosses. I am willing to say no, but does the public know that?”

Mortimer is the co-chairman of the Joint Legislative Oversight Committee, which oversees OPE; it’s a bipartisan panel. Rep. Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow, the other co-chair, told AP reporter Kimberlee Kruesi that she doubts its rules will be amended. “We don’t want to do anything that steps on the independence of the reports,” Ringo said. Click below for the full AP report.

Idaho government evaluators cautious about change 
By KIMBERLEE KRUESI, Associated Press

BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Armed with a small staff given the rare authority to critique Idaho’s governmental actions, Rakesh Mohan describes his work in one word: dangerous.

Mohan is the head of Idaho’s Office of Performance Evaluations, a legislative agency approved by state lawmakers 20 years ago. The nonpartisan office is designated to review state agency activities and evaluate government accountability.

It’s an agency that hasn’t always been well-known outside the Statehouse. However, after producing multiple reports that have not only revealed millions of savings in taxpayer dollars but also influenced department budgets, the office’s profile has risen.

Yet as demand for the office’s evaluations increase, so have attempts to sway what information is put together and presented to the public.

“These things happen in a political environment,” Mohan said. “The lawmakers who created this office knew about the danger of this work …. It’s always been there, in very subtle ways.”

Since 2003, the office’s evaluators have produced 93 reports. Of those, 43 have been evaluations of a department or program, while 54 reports have been follow-up reviews on how state officials chose to adopt the evaluators’ recommendations. Those reports have pinpointed nearly $60 million in one-time savings and an additional $9 million of annual savings.

Key reports include the 2013 teachers’ workforce study where the report noted that there was “an undercurrent of despair among teachers.” Shortly after the report’s release, Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter embraced 20 aggressive recommendations to help reshape public schools as well as to 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 by restructuring how it bonded for projects; and more than $6 million in annual savings after five years if the rest of report’s recommendations were implemented.

Yet calls for change continue to pop up.

Most recently, Republican Sen. Dean Mortimer of Idaho Falls has voiced an interest in improving how state officials adopt the findings of reports from the Office of Performance Evaluations. But one suggestion included giving the committee private previews of reports before they are released publicly.

Mortimer did not return multiple phone messages left on multiple days by The Associated Press.

Mortimer serves as co-chairman of the Joint Legislative Oversight Committee, which is an eight-member panel that determines what evaluations the Office of Performance Evaluation conducts. The committee reviews nearly 20 evaluation requests a year but approves on average three or four.

At the committee’s meetings in February, Mortimer requested that the panel consider changing the rules so that the committee meets in executive session before a report is released. That way, he said, members could decide whether an evaluation needs tweaking before going public. During July’s meeting, Mortimer suggested the committee contemplate meeting more often, as well as expanding its numbers.

“Is there a role this committee could play without getting into the political intricacies, a role OPE and JLOC can take in suggesting legislation?” Mortimer asked during the July 14 meeting. “I don’t know, but I do think it’s worth talking about.”

It’s a subtle change, but one that could damage the office’s independence and credibility, Mohan said in opposition.

The office’s reports are closed off to the public until the committee votes to release them. If findings were first released in executive session, members could ask Mohan to alter the report or delay the release.

“What happens in executive session is not public,” he said. “How easy would it be for me to say no if they want something changed? They are my bosses. I am willing to say no, but does the public know that?”

The last time Mohan’s office had to fight to maintain its independence was in 2007. Back then, committee member and former Republican Sen. John McGee of Caldwell suggested that Joint Legislative Oversight Committee approve the scope of the office’s reports. The office is currently in control the outline of what a report will question and review, Mohan said. Handing that over to the committee could open reports up to political influence as committee members attempt to control or protect certain programs, agencies or individuals.

Maintaining credibility will be critical for Mohan’s office during the next few months as his evaluators prepare to release what he considers two of the most contentious reports to come early 2015.

The first is taking a closer look at the efficiency of Idaho’s school data systems, one of high interest for Mortimer as he sits on the Senate Education Committee and is likely to take over as chairman when the Legislature begins in January.

These data systems are supposed to provide real-time student information that can guide instruction, but the rollout has been uneven.

If evaluators have enough time, the office will also look at the troubled Idaho Education Network broadband project, which received $11.4 million in bailouts from the 2014 Legislature. The study will be done only if analysts have the resources to do it.

Joint Legislative Oversight Committee co-chair and state Rep. Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow, said she doubts the rules will be amended. Instead, she believes that committee members should take a stronger stance on making sure reports are making the biggest impact as possible.

“We don’t want to do anything that steps on the independence of the reports,” Ringo said. “Our business has been to give the agencies and the governor’s office the report and then send them on to the germane committee and hope from that someone adopts the findings. Now it might be that there are some things that don’t get done, and I think we can make that better, really monitor what that follow through, and see if the committee needs to take more responsibility in pushing legislation.”

From AP/Eye on Boise

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