Lawmakers have been saying for several years now they want to restructure and modernize state government, strengthening the governor's executive powers in a state known for its dominating legislature. It's time they got it done.
This year, there is hope it might happen. A restructuring bill is moving through the Senate, where a compromise bill died last year in the final minutes of the session. It has passed the Judiciary Committee and now is in the Finance Committee.
Supporters feared that it would get stalled there. Finance Chairman Hugh Leatherman is a member of the state Budget and Control Board, where much of the state's administrative powers now lie. But along with sending the bill to the Finance Committee, senators set Feb. 20 as the date for full Senate debate. That timing bodes well for getting the bill through both chambers of the General Assembly and to the governor's desk.
Prevous bills, particuarly from the House, left a lot to be desired. This Senate bill promises substantive change.
The subject is complex, but the goals should be simple: Administrative duties should fall to the state's chief executive. Too much power rests in the hands of the five-member Budget and Control Board that is a mash-up of the executive and legislative branches. Clear accountability is the target.
The bill abolishes the board, a committee made up of the governor, treasurer, comptroller and chairmen of the House Ways and Means Committee and the Senate Finance Committee. That combination of executive and legislative oversight has thwarted real accountability for many key government functions and made a mockery of the concept of checks and balances in state government.
The board oversees a 1,000-employee agency with a wide range of duties -- from vehicle and property management to overseeing the state's retirement and computer systems to human resources to procurement to research and statistics to authorizing the sale of bonds to handling mid-year budget cuts.
Computer security is a good example of where things can go awry under this system. The Information Technology Division acts as a vendor to other state agencies. The Department of Revenue, the target of computer hackers, could buy its services and follow its advice or go its own way. Recommended security procedures were just that and not mandatory.
The legislation creates the Department of Administration and puts a wide variety of agencies and boards and commissions under it. The head of the new department would be appointed by the governor with Senate approval, like other Cabinet agencies.
But lest you think simplicity will be the natural outcome of this exercise, the bill also creates a State Fiscal Accountability Authority, with the same cast of characters as the outgoing Budget and Control Board. The new Accountability Authority would take on the old board's power to approve long-term capital projects and issue state-backed bonds, but with the help of new legislative entity, the Joint Bond Review Committee. Oversight of this process had been a key concern in years past. (If you want an idea of just how convoluted state government is, read this bill, S22.)
The bill requires lawmakers to do what they should have been doing all along: investigate the agencies assigned to House and Senate standing committees to be sure they are doing what the law requires them to do. The oversight investigations would have to happen at least once every seven years.
Today, the agencies mostly get a cursory review by small subcommittees during the budgeting process. Only major problems trigger more extensive investigations into an agency's inner workings.
And if you think this major overhaul might be moving too fast, not to worry. None of it would take effect until 2015.