Not too many people outside of state government have heard of the Office of Performance Evaluations (OPE), but it fills an important role as government watchdog and auditor.
OPE is a nonpartisan, independent organization, with offices in the Statehouse. It evaluates whether state government programs and agencies are operating efficiently and cost-effectively and are achieving intended results. In addition to finding tens of millions of dollars in savings in Idaho government, the office has a reputation for integrity and is nationally recognized for its work.
Each year, the Joint Legislative Oversight Committee (JLOC) holds several meetings to decide what reports OPE will work on in the upcoming year. What’s interesting about JLOC is that, first of all, it’s half Republican and half Democrat, rather than having its membership breakdown determined by the proportion of each party in the Legislature. Second, there’s a chair from each of the two parties and each of the two houses.
All of OPE’s reports are on its website, which is available at legislature.idaho.gov/ope. And they make interesting reading.
In the upcoming year, OPE is scheduled to write reports on the following issues:
• A review of the Idaho System for Educational Excellence (ISEE), the longitudinal data system for public education, and Schoolnet, an instructional improvement system; both have had implementation issues with local school districts, OPE says. The study is intended to check their accuracy and see how much it costs of local districts to gather and submit data to them.
• A review of Idaho’s costs for contracting legal services, which are estimated to be as much as $6 million
• A review of agencies’ use of salary savings to fund raises and benefits of state employees, as well as looking at holiday pay among agencies
This brings up some interesting OPE news. At JLOC’s July meeting, Republican JLOC co-chair Sen. Dean Mortimer, of Idaho Falls, suggested that instead of OPE releasing its reports to the public when they’re completed, the reports should instead be revealed only to JLOC in executive session, which might then “tweak” them.
This made a lot of people – including the head of OPE – really nervous. Even if JLOC didn’t change the wording of the report, just the fact that they saw it first, and presumably approved the wording in any report issued publicly, could end up eliminating the credibility of the office.
It’s speculated that part of the reason Sen. Mortimer wants to do this is that he’s in line to be the next chair of the Senate Education Committee. As you may recall, the current chair, Sen. John Goedde of Coeur d’Alene was primaried out this spring, and Sen. Mortimer is the current vice-chairman. Some people think he wants to see what the ISEE/Schoolnet report says before the public sees it, as well as another potential OPE report on how the Idaho Education Network is funded.
What will be interesting is whether JLOC actually does set forth such a requirement. It isn’t clear whether it would be voted on by the Legislature, or just implemented by JLOC or the Legislature as a rule in its December organizational meeting. Also, not all legislators, such as co-chair Rep. Shirley Ringo, of Moscow, agree with Sen. Mortimer – but how many will still be in office? And if JLOC votes on it, and it becomes a partisan issue, it could be a tie.
What’s also going to be interesting is what OPE head Rakesh Mohan would do. Would he resign in protest? Or would he feel that resigning would make it easier to replace him with someone who’s more likely to go along with this?