PED ‘ban’ could juice NCGA oversight

Fast-tracking investigations will test GOP’s commitment to accountability

Oversight and transparency are two of those DBI areas I mentioned last Friday (to get the post, you must subscribe and pay!). They aren’t as compelling as power grid seizures in Texas or censures of retiring lawmakers, but they’re essential to gain effective and accountable governance. Sadly, they’re ignored far too often.

Nerdy wonk (wonky nerd?) that I am, legislative Republicans’ decision to “repurpose” the General Assembly’s Program Evaluation Division surprised me. The PED, created in the late 2000s to mirror the federal Government Accountability Office, had a staff of about a dozen investigators who punched way above their weight. Retiring PED head John Turcotte tweeted the agency saved taxpayers $23 for every $1 spent on staff compensation and other costs.

That’s real money. So why defang the division?

It’s about timeliness, efficiency, and leverage, legislative spokesmen told me. PED has taken deep dives into problems with state agencies, but it hasn’t respond quickly. And it has no power to make its recommendations stick. A recalcitrant administration, like Gov. Roy Cooper’s, can ignore not only PED but also the state auditor’s office and refuse to deal with failing programs.

“A body that evaluates government efficiencies needs to have teeth,” Lauren Horsch, spokeswoman for Senate leader Phil Berger, said in an email. The PED has none.

The legislature has two joint oversight committees — program evaluation (which monitors PED) and government operations.

“The statutory charges for both PED and Gov Ops are very similar and largely duplicative. It is inefficient for the General Assembly to have two joint oversight committees with largely the same function,” she said. The legislative leaders chose to end this redundancy.

The legislative committees also have subpoena powers. PED doesn’t.

The Cooper administration’s handling of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline debacle made tougher oversight a priority, she said. During it, “the executive branch stonewalled reporters and legislators for nearly a year until the Gov Ops committee was able to compel document production that revealed, at a minimum, unethical conduct.”

In a phone interview, Joseph Kyzer, spokesman for House Speaker Tim Moore, said PED’s reports may be thorough, but they take time to produce and “won’t solve functionality failures from agencies.”

“Bureaucratic oversight has become bureaucratic,” he said.

Kyzer cited frustration his boss has heard from other lawmakers about failures by the executive agencies to do their jobs and the need for a faster, more direct response than PED could deliver. He cited three examples: transportation funding, unemployment benefits, and Medicaid management.

  • A state audit report published in May showed the N.C. Department of Transportation overspent its budget by $740 million the previous fiscal year. Even though DOT conducts internal audits four times a year, State Auditor Beth Wood said the audits aren’t designed to catch recurring spending blunders. DOT agreed with the audit’s findings. But it blamed COVID-19 for problems identified before the pandemic struck ... and came back to the General Assembly with a request for more money.

  • North Carolina ranked last in the nation at getting unemployment insurance benefits to recipients on time before COVID-19 hit. That was one of the blockbusters my former Carolina Journal colleagues reported last year. Cooper responded by firing the head of the Division of Employment Security, but Kyzer told me DES still hasn’t gotten its act together.

  • The state’s Medicaid program for years spent hundreds of millions more than the General Assembly allocated. Over Cooper’s objections, lawmakers spent five years shifting the $14 billion program from a fee-for-service system which paid providers for every treatment to a managed-care model that requires providers to keep costs in line or eat their losses. Even so, the state Department of Health and Human Services has until July to roll out a new structure and won’t face penalties if it misses the deadline.

Kyzer said PED money would be used to hire legislative investigators for oversight. They can respond quickly and directly. 

“It’s time to put up or shut up,” he said.

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Horsch added that using legislative committees to conduct more thorough investigations mirrors how Congress handles oversight. The division isn’t being eliminated, but the Program Evaluation Committee will be mothballed for the session. Moreover, Gov Ops has bipartisan staff members, and that Berger has discussed the changes with Senate Minority Leader Dan Blue.

“How the legislature conducts oversight is entirely up to the legislature,” she said.

This beefed-up approach will offer a test of the General Assembly’s capacity to work as a unit to hold the executive branch accountable. The money being wasted right now by NCDOT and Medicaid would dwarf any savings PED has found. No telling how many other agencies aren’t doing their jobs. 

Let’s see some results. Have at it!

Last call for AMAA

My dance card is almost filled for Friday’s Ask Me Almost Anything mailbag newsletter. But there’s still time to prod my noggin (virtually, of course). Just email me: the.deregulator@yahoo.com. Please send by the end of the day Thursday, and I’ll incorporate as many as I can. Thanks!

Medical news

We’re perhaps a committee meeting (argh) away from the FDA approving the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine! Looks like we need a Rock and Roll Doctor to get things moving. (Back in the day, Little Feat were so tight they could bring the house down during a sound check.)