Good idea that rarely survives political reality

February 22, 2012 

Alabama has already contracted with consultants from Auburn University Montgomery for $320,000 in taxpayers’ money to help streamline state government. So let’s begin with the premise that any efficiency plan needs to save the state at least that much.

The historical reality is that political pledges of government downsizing have a lower rate of success than even baseball players, the very best of whom succeed only about a third of the time. Savvy taxpayers would gladly settle for a .300 average in government efficiency efforts.

Gov. Robert Bentley says his will not be just another task force report that will eventually join all its predecessors on a dusty and forgotten shelf of bureaucratic archives. It’s in the interest of every Alabamian, and maybe citizens elsewhere as well, that his prediction is accurate.

Bentley and his legislative liaison in the Commission on Improving State Government, Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, say the difference this time will be the cooperative power of a Republican governor and Legislature. It’s a nice thought and good political spin, but the record of just how much government has ever “shrunk” under one-party rule -- in Washington or in Montgomery, and under the rule of either party -- suggests that won’t be enough.

More to the point: The state is facing a $400 million budget shortfall next year, so maybe necessity is the mother of efficiency.

The commission has zeroed in on some specifics. Marsh’s group reports that 126 of 196 state agencies have redundant functions. If that’s accurate, that’s a lot of wasted effort and money. Among those agencies are no fewer than 21 with investigative and/or enforcement duties. “If we can work consolidation in public safety,” Marsh said, “we can do it in any area.” (Listening, Columbus?)

The governor plans other downsizings and mergers in the executive branch: Bentley proposes combining then Department of Child Abuse and Neglect Prevention and the Office of Special needs into a single Human Resources agency, and absorbing the Department of Labor into the Department of Industrial Relations.

The legislative branch is considering a bill to combine its bill-writing office with the Legislative Fiscal Office.

Also under consideration is the necessity (or otherwise) of separate regulatory and licensing agencies. One recommendation is for a single state website for online renewal of existing licenses.

Even in government, this kind of surgery needs to be done with scalpels, not chainsaws. Not every downsizing is an improvement, and not every merger works. (The consolidation of Georgia’s Environmental Protection Division and Department of Natural Resources has been a problem for decades.)

But if this effort really does make Alabama government both smaller and better, it will be a landmark political legacy.

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