On Tuesday, lawmakers on the Executive Appropriations Committee heard testimony on a recent report that suggests lawmakers are eager to pass bills which cost taxpayers millions of dollars annually, but it’s rare for them to write specific benchmarks into the law—leaving the executive branch rudderless when attempting to implement new rules and laws.
Steve Jardine with the Legislative Fiscal Office (LFO) for the State of Utah presented findings in their Fiscal Note and Budget Item Follow-Up Report. Based on a sampling of bills the LFO investigated, it appears setting benchmarks and reporting progress is not a high priority.
As Jardine explained, the report tracked selected bills to see how accurate cost estimates were for passed bills and how close budgets were for state agencies when implementing policies. The report found that while the LFO does a good job of predicting costs and various state agencies generally implement policies in a timely manner, tracking performance is lagging behind.
“We determined, as an office, that all items that submitted no performance [evaluations] were given a ‘yellow’ [ranking],” Jardine explained. Within the bills sampled for performance, 47 items received a good, or “green” rank, one received a bad, or “red” ranking, and the majority of those surveyed, 64, received a “yellow” rank – meaning that the LFO simply is unable to track if laws and policies are achieving what they set out to achieve.
Though the entire report was troubling to lawmakers, one item in particular drew the attention of several committee members: the delisting of grey wolfs from the engendered species list and the $300,000 of state funds that went towards the lobbying efforts of the group Big Game Forever to achieve this goal. The law in question received a “yellow” score for performance as no results were reported.
Ivan Djambov of the LFO explained that funds for Big Game Forever quickly passed through the Division of Wildlife Resources, and that the Division did not specify any sort of performance measures as a condition of awarding the contract to Big Game Forever.
Jardine was quick to explain ”There are a lot of these programs out there where the legislature isn’t passing statute to require performance information or specific outcomes, or not stating that in an appropriations bill, or leaving it up to the executive branch to implement the program. And in some case,s they don’t know what is expected of them in terms of performance and this is a pretty good example where we’re not articulating as a legislature outcome expectations. As a result, the executive branch is not implementing those outcome expectations.”
Jardine also used this as a case study of the problems associated with with this and other so-called “pass through” programs, wherein money from the state enters a state agency and immediately passes through to another agency or contractor.
“It is much more difficult for us to understand what the true implications were and what was expected before that happens,” Jardine stated. “You see can see ‘green, green, yellow’ [on the report's results]. Well the two greens just mean we can spend money really well. It’s green for accuracy—we know how much money we are going to give them; its green because we wrote them a check really quick. But we don’t necessarily know what we are getting back.”
“We didn’t require in the contract that [Big Game Forever] tell us how they spent all of their money, our contract was dedicated towards getting a delisting, which we found satisfactory,” stated Greg Sheehan, Director of the DWR. When pressed by Senators about the issue, Sheehan explained that “normally, when you bid a competitive contract you wouldn’t make a requirement that the winner comes back and tells you how they spent all of their money.”
Only one bid was received for the grey wolf desisting, and legislation is often written to favor one or a handful of selected contractors.
Senator Luz Robles (Democrat, Salt Lake City) continued to press, asking Sheehan if “it is not the norm to have a breakdown on the expenditure [projections] on how they spend the money?” Sheehan replied, “I am not sure if there are many or any [outside contractors] at all who have to report…I don’t think that would be normal to ask for.”
Lawmakers may or may not choose to address the issue during the next legislative session.