Saturday, February 23, 2013

Who holds legislators accountable? Not the voters.

Most Wyoming legislators call themselves  “fiscally conservative” yet they needlessly spent $80 million rejecting Medicaid expansion. Expansion could’ve saved hundreds of millions. Journalist Kerry Drake called that “legislative malpractice.”

So, who holds legislators accountable? Not the voters. Parliamentary contests in Cuba are more competitive than legislative races in Wyoming.

Legislators audit state agencies for accountability. The Legislative Service Office’s website says the goal of Program Evaluation “is to provide legislators with useful, objective, and timely information about the extent to which desired program results are being achieved.” Legislators evaluate “the effectiveness and efficiency of programs,” in order improve state government.

That raises the question, “Who audits the auditors?” If auditing agencies improves their operate, why not also audit the legislature? Voters should know more about whether the legislature functions effectively for the same reason legislators should know whether state agencies are effective.

The legislature was last “audited” in 1971. As a part of a national assessment Rutgers University graded the effectiveness of all 50 state legislatures on matters such as independence from lobbying groups and openness to public participation. Wyoming’s legislature ranked 49th best in the nation. As a result, the LSO was created and other important reforms initiated. That was four decades ago.

Where to start? Legislators fondly call themselves “a citizen legislature.” Is that really true? What does it even mean?

An audit of the legislature could begin by asking how it happens that so many members run unopposed in a “citizen’s legislature?” Incumbents have created an environment where few of their fellow citizens feel they can actually run for the job. Perhaps the audit would disclose that the desire of legislators to micromanage state government has resulted in the creation of so many committees and select committees that few people in the state have the time or the financial means to take part in the process.

Legislature have a dozen standing committees, 16 select committees and 20 other councils and commissions requiring legislative participation in addition to other obligations. Resulting demands on legislators’ time, beyond the days they spend in session, are extreme. That’s not a part-time “citizen’s legislature.” Neither is it the best way to conduct legislative business. But it is a good way to discourage citizen participation.

An audit should review the dependency of legislators on professional lobbyists. How many bills originate with special interests rather than citizens? How many out-of-state organizations write proposed bills for introduction in Wyoming? To what extent do legislators rely on the information provided by professional lobbyists? You’d be surprised by the answers.

Wouldn’t you like to know whether your legislators operate in an “evidence-based world?” If you follow them, you can identify instances where statements made on the floor or in a committee are verifiably untrue. An audit would make recommendations for holding legislators accountable when misleading information is used. It would also be enlightening to learn the sources of information that legislators drag to the floor for debates.

It would also be worth knowing how often legislators ignore the legal advice of well-paid LSO lawyers and introduce clearly unconstitutional bills. How much do those charades cost the taxpayers? Legislators demand that state agency decisions are data-driven and that they measure outcomes. The voters have a right to know the same about legislators and the work they do.

Our legislature is “transparency-challenged.” Auditors should look at procedures and infrastructure that deter public participation. Wyoming is one of the few states resisting electronic voting. Bills are scheduled for public hearings on short notice, often in small rooms, discouraging voters from participating. Small changes could be found to open the process and encourage citizen participation.

An audit of the legislature would “provide voters useful, objective, and timely information about the extent to which those we elect achieve desired results.”

No other state agency staff and budget has grown as much as the legislature’s over the last 20 years. That growth occurred without an audit. Good government principals require that at least occasionally somebody should audit the auditors.

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