Legislators To Cut State Board Bureaucracy

FEB. 16, 2011


“A government bureau is the nearest thing to eternal life we’ll ever see on this earth,” said Ronald Reagan. Which makes California, with its hundreds of state regulatory boards, commissions, authorities, associations, councils and committees, pretty much bureaucratic heaven. But that could change if a new legislative reform effort to “sunset” ineffective and redundant boards has better success than previous efforts.

California’s bureaucratic cancer was caused by Progressives in the 1910s, who believed boards made up of citizens with professional expertise would provide better oversight than elected officials, who might be in the pocket of unions, corporations and other special interests, according to Kevin Starr, a history professor, in testimony to the California Performance Review Commission in 2004. The first boards focused on regulation of big items like railroads and public utilities, but before long commissions were dealing with issues such as migrant working and housing conditions. Now California has boards in charge of acupuncture, auto repair, barbers, cemeteries, court reporters, dentists, guide-dogs for the blind, interior designers, masseuses and pest control, among many others.

Echoing Reagan, Starr said, “Such boards and commissions, being governmental entities, by their very definition do not put themselves out of business. Term limits and other political considerations, moreover, rendered the highly remunerated positions on a number of these commissions desirable options for termed-out elected officials between elections, or for political activists wishing to be rewarded. When you combine a multiplying number of boards and commissions, paychecks, politics, a rapidly changing state calling for new boards and commissions to deal with new problems, and the inertia intrinsic to all bureaucracy, you have the problem that we face today in California: an overlapping network of sometimes redundant, sometimes out-of-date, sometimes unnecessary boards and commissions.”

The Unemployment Insurance Appeals Board consists of former Assembly members and senators who receive $114,191 a year, despite only meeting two days a month. The Integrated Waste Management Board included two former state senators, a former assemblyman and a former staffer for then-Gov. Schwarzenegger, who each received $132,178 a year. In what may be a small victory for streamlining – or perhaps just rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic – as of January the Waste Management Board has been eliminated and its duties transferred to the Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery.

The problem of the plethora of boards has been known for decades. The Little Hoover Commission issued a report in July 1989, “Boards And Commissions: California’s Hidden Government,” which concluded, “California’s multi-level, complex governmental structure today includes more than 400 boards, commissions, authorities, associations, councils and committees. These plural bodies operate to a large degree autonomously and outside of the normal checks and balances of representative government. [They] are proliferating without adequate evaluation of need, effectiveness and efficiency. This lack of control may cost the state not only dollars, but also wasted resources, duplicated efforts and the adoption of policies that may run counter to the general public’s interest.

“Some of the statutes creating these organizations contain ‘sunset’ provisions terminating their operation after a set amount of time. But even in these cases the Legislature often extends their existence without any formal review of past operations or future needs, purpose or direction. The result is that some bodies continue to exist even after they no longer have any budget, staff or useful function.”

Prior to the formation of a Joint Legislative Sunset Review Committee in 1994, only three agencies had ever been eliminated by the Legislature: the Board of Fabric Care, the Auctioneer Commission, and the Board of Polygraph Examiners, according to a report by Amber Alexander with the Senate Republican Office of Policy.

The California Performance Review Commission’s review of 339 boards concluded, “that a central problem of these boards and commissions is a lack of general accountability. Furthermore, some of these boards and commissions do not provide transparency, are inefficient, and are not cost effective.”

The Commission recommended elimination of 117 boards and commissions. But, despite those findings, Schwarzenegger’s infamous vow to “blow up the boxes” of government, and the dozen years of existence of the Joint Legislative Sunset Review Committee, state government now contains about 1,000 boards, commissions and similar entities, according to the Senate Business, Professions & Economic Development Committee.

Taking another shot at blowing up some of those boxes is Assemblywoman Alyson Huber, D-El Dorado Hills, who passed AB1659 and AB2130 last year, forming a new Joint Sunset Review Committee that will be chaired by Huber.

“If the entities cannot demonstrate they are being effective and efficient, they will be automatically eliminated,” she said in a statement. “The Legislature creates new boards and commissions to solve a problem. Far too often, there is no ongoing oversight of the newly created bureaucracy to ensure it actually solved the problem it was created to solve. The lack of accountability has been studied and known for years, yet no action had been taken until now. Instituting a sunset review process in California finally gives us the tools we need to really cut down on waste.

“This is the kind of bipartisan, long-term reform the state needs and could save the state billions of dollars. Numerous other states have a sunset review function and have realized long-term savings. In Texas, for example, its Sunset Advisory Commission created in 1978, saves $27 for each dollar spent on the Commission. Furthermore, total savings achieved by the Commission equals roughly 5 percent of the state’s budget – in California 5 percent is $4 billion.”

That $4 billion in savings might be optimistic. The fiscal analysis for AB1659 states that it is “unknown.” The California Performance Review Commission estimated that $34 million (in 2004 dollars) would be saved if its recommendations were followed to eliminate 117 boards, including 1,153 board appointees, while retaining 222 boards and their 3,365 appointees.

In addition to Huber’s committee, there will also be sunset scrutiny of Department of Consumer Affairs boards by legislative policy committees, including a joint Business and Professions Committee. On March 14 the Senate Business, Professions & Economic Development Committee is scheduled to hold the first of three sunset hearings.

First up to justify its existence will be the Athletic Commission, Dental Board, Nursing Board and Vocation Nursing and Psychiatric Technicians Board. That will be followed on March 21 when the committee takes a look at the Accountancy Board, the Architects Board, Contractor State License Board, Engineers, Land Surveyors and Geologists, Landscape Architects Technical Committee and Professional Fiduciaries Bureau. Eleven more boards are scheduled for the remainder of the current legislative session and another 11 in the year after that.

The Joint Sunset Review Committee members have been appointed but a date hasn’t been set for the first meeting.

Alexander’s report concludes, “Sunset review helps mitigate two ongoing challenges – how to ensure that the boards are really protecting the public and not the regulated profession, and how to make sure that the department is doing all it can to protect consumers in its broader mission. For these reasons, it is important that boards be required to scrutinize themselves under the cloud of possible elimination. The citizens who pay for boards and commissions through taxes and fees deserve to have the efficiency and cost effectiveness of those boards and commissions tested regularly for legitimacy, accountability, customer service, innovation and resourcefulness. As such, it is important that the Legislature take steps to make certain that the sun is never again allowed set on this important enforcement mechanism in California.”

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