Government efficiency? The story of why 8 state boards died

Government efficiency? The story of why 8 state boards died
Source: Secretary of State's audit of boards and commissions. From page 6 of the report.

PORTLAND, Ore. - In 2011 eight Oregon state boards died during that year's legislative session, but lawmakers weren't shy about creating 24 new ones that year as well. 

Since an audit conducted by the Oregon secretary of state's office was released in late June that found there were more than 250 boards and commissions in the state and more oversight of those boards was needed, there have been questions raised whether Oregon needs them all. Two additional questions: why were those eight eliminated and can lessons be learned from how they died?

A KATU.com review of legislative committee hearings and public records found the reasons for the eliminations of those eight boards came mostly from reaction to internal and external reviews and economic forces. There appeared to be no broad political force that instigated the changes. And at least three of the eliminated boards were re-created under different names with greater oversight powers or redefined missions.

You’ve done your job

Perhaps the happiest demise of a board was the Oregon Opportunity Task Force. In a January 2010 report, state auditors praised the program that was created by the 2001 Legislature to expand research at Oregon Health & Science University.

"Overall, we found that the Oregon Opportunity Program resulted in expanded research at OHSU," auditors wrote. "We also found that OHSU met or exceeded its specific goals and measurable targets for the Oregon Opportunity Program."

The audit then listed the specific goals the program had achieved, including the recruitment of 94 scientific investigators and the building of the Biomedical Research Building. There were many more achievements listed, too.

Notably, the audit did not call for the end of the task force.

State Sen. David Nelson, R-Pendleton, who was also involved in the successful push to eliminate the Oregon Grain Commission and the Oregon Highland Bentgrass Commission in 2011, told the Transportation and Economic Development Committee during a Feb. 4 2011 public hearing that perhaps it was time for the OHSU task force to go.

"They've done their job and do not need to be in existence, and it's time for us to move on," he said.

Chair of the task force, Ellen Lowe, agreed and noted that the positive state audit was the main reason her board members unanimously agreed to disband.

"We really did complete the assignment that we had from the 2001 legislative assembly," she told the committee.

Market forces force change

The already mentioned Highland Bentgrass and Grain commissions also met their end in the 2011 legislative session. The few necessary responsibilities of those two commissions were transferred to other boards, the Oregon Fir Fescue Commission and the Wheat Commission, respectively.

In the case of the Grain Commission, changing markets reduced grain production in the state, making the need for an entire commission for grain obsolete. Tom Duyck, then-chair of the Wheat Commission, told the Senate Environment and Natural Resources Committee April 5 that his commission had the staff to take on the remaining responsibilities of the Grain Commission because the work was similar.

"It was a cost-effective deal that was discussed three years ago but it finally came to (fruition) this last year about trying to combine the Wheat Commission and the Grain Commission together," he said.

Upon realizing it was no longer useful, the Grain Commission board voted to disband. Lawmakers agreed and passed a law that officially killed it.

Reduced production also plagued the Highland Bentgrass Commission, but according to Roger Beyer, executive director with the Oregon Seed Council, sales of the grass to European markets required an update of a registration every 10 years.

"At this point in time, with the administrative costs, there is no money left to be able to do that registration," said Beyer, who hoped that combining with the Fir Fescue Commission the registration could be kept current and the state could continue to sell Highland Bentgrass overseas.

Your board is in the wrong spot

An internal review of the Heritage Program within the State Department of Lands found the entire program could be more effective if it was moved to the Oregon State Parks and Recreation Department.

"The Department of State Lands' mission is not directly in line with the goals and objectives of the Heritage Program, and the council in their 25-year review recommended that we look at transferring the program to an agency that had a similar mission," said state lands director Louise Solliday before the Senate Environment and Natural Resources Committee Feb. 3, 2011.

According to that Feb. 13, 2005 review, obtained through a public records request, the Natural Heritage Advisory Council asked for an independent review of its program to "help define future program priorities, functions, and relevance of the existing program to current and future governmental programs and public policy."

The Institute for Natural Resources at Oregon State University, using an outside facilitator, conducted the review. And like the state audit of OHSU's program, it did not recommend the advisory council should end; instead, it recommended the council should have a new role that "would need to have members with technical knowledge and practical knowledge."

But the Natural Heritage Advisory Council was eliminated through legislation, and the Heritage Program was transferred to the parks department. The new law gave the parks department director the authority to create a "natural areas advisory committee."

Chris Havel, spokesman for the parks department, said last week that Tim Wood, the director of state parks, intends only to create advisory groups on an "ad hoc basis."

Havel said as issues come up, Wood will pull people together and then disband them after they finish their work.

Streamlining and authority needed. But did they really die?

Lawmakers in 2011 killed The Drug Use Review Board but in the same breath (and legislation, HB 2100) resurrected it in a newly created board called the Pharmacy and Therapeutics Committee.

Amy Fauver, then-director of state and federal affairs with the Oregon Health Authority, argued before the House Health Care Committee Feb. 11, 2011 that previous legislation (HB 2009) that created a preferred drug list "was silent, however, on the mechanism we would use to create that drug list."

She said the new committee would be "a stakeholder advisory committee that would replace the current drug review committee, streamlining those operations and allowing us to take care of both functions in one."

The same was true for the other two boards eliminated by HB 2100, the Health Resource Commission and the Health Services Commission. They were merged into a new board, the Health Evidence Review Commission.

Fauver characterized the changes as "housekeeping" because HB 2009 moved the three boards into the Oregon Health Authority and streamlining their operations was necessary because the boards were run by different staffs.

The need for greater regulatory authority prompted the elimination of the Advisory Council for Electrologists and Permanent Color Technicians and Tattoo Artists. While that board was eliminated it was re-created as the Board of Body Art Practitioners.

Nancy Sellers, who at the time was a senior policy analyst with the Oregon Health Licensing Agency, told the House Health Care Committee on April 4, 2011 that all the related fields of body art needed to be "integrated" under one board to "work more closely with the agency in regulating these professions and ... allow us to have oversight with them to ensure their administrative rules were appropriately written."

Rep. Mitch Greenlick, co-chair of the House Health Care Committee, invited the Oregon Licensing Agency to present its research to the committee before the 2011 session began after having a number of discussions about the subject, Sellers, who is now the executive director of the Oregon Board of Optometry, said during an interview last week. 

"There was a real concern, in particular with body piercing, before the law changed ... there were no restrictions, no training, no limitations. ... There was just no regulatory authority that the state had. So I think that prompted a look at merging practices," she said.

Don’t tell us what to do, we’ll make up our own minds, thank you

There was no overarching public call for the elimination of those eight boards in 2011. Additionally, there was no single leader calling for changes. That kind of top-down approach was tried by former Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski and backfired.

In 2009 he tried to get the Legislature to eliminate, consolidate or suspend about 60 boards and commissions. He immediately ran into roadblocks, and according to the secretary of state's office, he was only successful in getting three eliminated.

The Oregonian reported that at the time Kulongoski's call for change "caused an uproar among people who sit on those boards or do business with them. They called the governor, wrote their legislators, put their lobbyists to work."

The pushback was evidence that many of the boards and commissions the governor wanted to kill or consolidate had rooted themselves within the system and weren't going anywhere.

Interestingly, the only board that was killed in 2011 that was on Kulongoski's 2009 list was the Oregon Opportunity Task Force, which was found to have successfully met its goals.

Going forward: What's next?

State auditors found boards and commissions are important for the state and "engage the public in the administration of state government," and that only a small portion of the general fund is used to finance them. But auditors recommended that the governor, the state Department of Administrative Services and the Legislature work together on things like improving oversight functions, creating a comprehensive list of boards and clarifying or creating laws that will lead to better reporting of what boards are doing.
 
In his written response to the audit, current Gov. John Kitzhaber said he agreed with the "underlying recommendation(s)" of the audit and pledged to work with the DAS and the Legislature in the upcoming 2013 session to begin to address the secretary of state's findings.

Michael Jordan, the director of DAS, said in an interview last week that his department will start working on the auditors' recommendations in the 2013 session as well. He said the work will include what he can do without the need for legislative action, like better recordkeeping and creating a standardized complaint process, and his department may also ask lawmakers for changes in the law. He specifically mentioned the auditors' recommendation for creating a "sunrise" law, which would prevent legislators from establishing a board without meeting specific criteria.  

Jordan said he found the secretary of state's audit "eye-opening" and should prompt Oregonians to review their system of state boards and commissions.

"Certainly we want a citizen-driven government, but at some point it gets to be such an unwieldy animal that it is very difficult to make sure it's on point and doing the public's business in the way we want it done," he said. "Just from a managerial perspective, the sheer scale of it gives me some pause."

But Sellers, the executive director of the state Board of Optometry, characterized the auditor's report as "rather critical" and suggested that focusing on the number of boards and commissions was the wrong approach.

"This is government, really, at the grassroots level," she said, adding that the consolidation of boards into larger agencies that other states like Washington and California have done will likely create problems. "I kind of make the analogy of it's like saying that everybody should go to the same Starbucks and the same gas station, because it will be more efficient to have everybody go to the same place instead of duplicating effort – (but) you end up with longer lines and poor customer service, and the prices aren't necessarily any cheaper."

Email: sbenham@katu.com

Twitter: @SteveBenham1