News: CJ Exclusives

Legislative Committee Backs Measures To Boost State Efficiency

Short session could consider ideas to save tax dollars, root out waste

State lawmakers could take some steps this year toward zero-based budgeting, increased accountability for taxpayer investment, and greater use of something called “data analytics.” The General Assembly’s Legislative Research Commission voted without debate Wednesday to forward proposals on each topic to the full General Assembly.

Each bill sprang from the debates of the LRC’s Committee on Efficiencies in State Government, which met four times after the regular 2011 legislative session.

One proposal emerging from that committee work calls on lawmakers to create an Efficiency and Cost-Savings Commission, a 10-member group “for the purpose of identifying an agency or agencies to undergo zero-based budgeting review.”

“The committee looked extensively at beginning a process of zero-based budgeting across all areas of state government,” said committee co-chairman Sen. Ralph Hise, R-Mitchell, during a three-minute presentation to the full LRC. “The committee expressed a lot of concerns with the ability of staff and time to be able to do that and came back with a recommendation that mirrors what is House Bill 627.”

“It does not implement zero-based budgeting across state government immediately,” Hise explained, but it would start the process by identifying the agencies that could undergo an “experimental” zero-based budgeting review. The legislation also would “begin to look at things such as what would be the expected legislative and staff times to implement this for various programs, as well as across all of state government.”

Hise also discussed a second proposal, dubbed the Smarter Government/Business Intelligence Initiative. It would “establish the Government Business Intelligence Competency Center,” under direction of the state controller. The initiative also would “provide for a phased approach towards expanding the State’s business intelligence capabilities,” according to the committee’s report.

“Business intelligence” is another name for “data analytics,” which Hise detailed for his colleagues. “Data analytics is a process that can exist within any data set in which you establish correlations between various data and others,” he said. “It is the strong belief of the committee that, as we move forward with efficiencies in state government, data analytics will be a huge part of that movement.”

“When we looked at some concerns we had kind of across state government with detecting fraud, waste, and abuse, one of the biggest problems we have with data in state government is that it exists in silos across state agencies that cannot communicate with each other,” Hise added. “These recommendations in the legislation address that all agencies will report to a business intelligence unit under the office of [state] controller.”

“We will move forward with making all of state agency data available and accessible,” he said. “This allows us to utilize that information without necessarily having to go in and replace all the individual silos. [We] would instead be able to communicate with them.”

The third piece of legislation tied to the committee’s work is the Accountability for Taxpayer Investment Act, which would require state agencies “to develop, implement, and maintain information systems that provide uniform, program-level accountability information regarding the programs operated by those agencies.”

This idea evolved from Senate Bill 463, introduced by Sen. Eric Mansfield, D-Cumberland, and co-sponsored by Hise and others in 2011. Mansfield, a freshman legislator who recently lost his party’s primary election for lieutenant governor, “was surprised to learn that State agency websites do not provide clear definitions of services provided, outcomes achieved, and costs associated with their various programs,” according to the committee’s report. “Generally speaking, there appears to be little information available to indicate performance levels.”

Mansfield’s original proposal “envisions the development of a system similar to the federal Governmental Accounting Standards Board, which sets accounting standards for all units of government in the United States and allows for comparison of data between units,” according to the report.

Wednesday’s unanimous LRC vote did not represent an endorsement of any of the three proposals. Instead the commission’s vote allowed each bill to move forward during the 2012 legislative session, which faces limits on the types of legislation lawmakers can consider.

Each proposal would need support from the full House and Senate before it could become law.

Mitch Kokai is an associate editor of Carolina Journal.