The Idaho Legislature took a bold step to improve the efficiency of state government in 1994. Tired of being blindsided by poorly performing programs, the Legislature established an independent, nonpolitical Office of Performance Evaluations (OPE) to evaluate the effectiveness of governmental operations. The Joint Legislative Oversight Committee (JLOC), with bipartisan membership, directs the work of OPE. It has produced outstanding reports, pointing out governmental deficiencies and suggesting options to address them.
Without OPE’s 2022 K-12 Public School Buildings report, we would never know that the State is wildly deficient in performing its constitutional duty to pay for the maintenance and repair of Idaho’s public school buildings. It will take almost one billion dollars to bring our school facilities up to just “good” condition. Left unsaid is the fact that the State is responsible for the construction of the new buildings that are desperately needed in so many communities and that the Idaho Constitution places construction and maintenance costs on state taxpayers, not local property owners. Senator Dave Lent, who chairs the Senate Education Committee and is a member of JLOC, is trying to find a real solution to this serious deficiency, thanks to the OPE report. This type of in-depth evaluation and reporting is essential to efficient, responsible government.
OPE has also studied a traffic safety issue coming before the Legislature. Senator Jim Guthrie, who chairs the Senate State Affairs Committee, has just introduced Senate Bill 1081, which will allow undocumented immigrants to obtain restricted driver’s licenses. A 2021 report by OPE provides support for Guthrie’s bill. It indicated that “accidents involving unlicensed drivers are three times deadlier than accidents involving licensed drivers.” Workers are able to put in more hours per week with driving privileges. These folks are valuable members of our communities. They will be here even if they don’t get driving privileges. If they are allowed to come in from the shadows, they can get driver training and liability insurance. They won’t be fearful of reporting traffic accidents. Senator Guthrie was aware that his bill would draw fire, but the OPE report gives helpful, straight-forward perspective on its merits. SB 1081 is supported by the Idaho Dairymen, J.R. Simplot Company, Amalgamated Sugar and a wide swath of the agricultural community. OPE provides factual support for good policy.
OPE has evaluated quite a number of programs that were perceived to be struggling and has been able to give the Legislature the information it needs to fix them, including improvement of operations at the Idaho Transportation Department, strengthening public contracting practices, reforming Idaho’s foster care system and increasing efficiencies in the parole process. Those and other studies have saved Idaho taxpayers many millions of dollars. OPE has received national recognition for its forward-looking, problem-solving work, including awards for excellence from the National Legislative Evaluation Society, the American Society for Public Administration and the American Evaluation Association.
Prior to the establishment of OPE, performance audits were periodically made of all governmental agencies, regardless of how they were functioning. The reviews were conducted by an arm of the Legislature by reviewers who were essentially jacks of all trades and masters of none. The evaluations did not specifically target programs that were failing to attain their objectives. As Attorney General in the pre-OPE days, I found the legislative audits to be annoying, superficial and of little practical value.
On the 9th of February, the House demonstrated a preference for the old, essentially useless system, rather than the unbiased, fact-based approach of OPE, by passing House Bill 68. The bill eliminates JLOC and places performance evaluation under the control of the majority party. That will put an end to the kind of deep-dive inquiries previously performed by OPE and consign the agency to the monotony of rubber stamping the views of the rulers, who often prefer to stick their heads in the sand and gloss over governmental waste and inefficiency.