Goodbye to Good Research

Funding for state programs that research and analyze long-term issues is dwindling.

Sometimes we really don't want to be right. Nearly a decade ago, we wrote a column called Bad-News Budgeting. At the time, we referred to a sub-oceanic, urban myth about a "slimy, aquatic creature that nourishes itself by absorbing its own brain." We were talking about such a creature in the context of fears that governments at the time would respond to the recession by cutting management analysis.

And that's exactly what's happening as a result of the so-called "Great Recession." A recent casualty was the Kentucky Long-Term Policy Research Center, abolished by the Legislature in March. The much-praised center--created in 1992--gave Kentucky an enormous boost by focusing on the kinds of long-term issues that are often given short-shrift by legislators. It's often been named by national organizations as a model of good state research. The cost was $1.1 million--a tiny fraction of a percent of the state's two-year $17 billion state budget.

The center is credited with helping the state to reduce its dependency on tobacco crops in the mid-'90s. Its work on retirement systems was used by the Legislature to arrive at much needed pension reforms. "Political leaders never think far enough ahead and the Long-Term Policy Research Center helped us do that," says Rep. Carl Rollins, chair of the Kentucky House of Representatives' Education Committee. What will happen when the center closes its doors at the end of June? "Basically there's nobody in state government who does what these people did," Rollins says.

Some observers speculate that tough fiscal times can be used to get rid of potentially unwanted information. Reginald Meeks, a state representative and former chair of the board for the Kentucky Long-Term Policy Research Center, says, "When the Legislature created the center, it wanted independent information. And then, I think it became an issue that they were so independent." One former appropriation chairman even quipped, "We've been trying to get them for a long time."

Even if this kind of political power play isn't at work in Kentucky or elsewhere, it's sad to see states cut back on analysis that helps them in the long term. The Oregon Legislature, for instance, stopped funding the Oregon Progress Board altogether. Even Florida's much-praised Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability (OPPAGA) is being severely cut back. Four years ago, it had about 90 positions; legislative budget cuts reduced the staff in 2009 and again in early May, shrinking the number of positions to about 60. Talking about the earlier round of cuts, OPPAGA Director Gary VanLandingham says, "You want accountability and you want to be able to identify your options, but [cutbacks] reduce the Legislature's ability to get that type of information."

Such reductions are going beyond the major centers of research. Gary Blackmer, audit director in Oregon, points to department of administration cuts to human resources, budgeting, finance and facilities--things agencies depend on.

"If you're losing altitude and your plane is going down," Blackmer says, "you don't try to shed weight by tearing out your instrument panel and throwing it out." For example, in the personnel area, three of the four classification-compensation consultant positions are vacant and not currently being filled. This has resulted in a long list of agencies needing assistance when they want to change employees' job duties. There also are a significant number of unfilled jobs on both the legislative and executive side in the performance management or measurement area.

Sadly these kinds of cuts are taking place when the need for program analysis has never been greater. Auditors in many states, for instance, have had to take on a whole set of additional responsibilities attached to the evaluation of stimulus-fund spending. Janice Mueller, the legislative auditor in Wisconsin, says this vastly increased the workload for her auditors last year, but next year will be even worse. That's because first-year Recovery-Act dollars were generally focused on existing programs, such as unemployment insurance, increases to medical assistance or school funding. Second-year audit responsibilities likely will be much more complex as they involve a host of smaller, distinct programs. She and other auditors question how they can manage so many new requirements when they are asked to take furlough days as budgets are cut back.

We should point out, of course, that strong leadership and focus can mitigate the damages of budget cuts. The Oregon Department of Human Services has been working on a transformation initiative in the last several years that enabled it to reduce large backlogs in its food stamp program to same-day service. Human service and health officials emphasize that the progress board's defunding didn't stop them from measuring performance and moving forward with a variety of management tools to make the kinds of changes they needed to make.

We assume the same thing is happening in other states. But we still keep thinking about that sea slug.

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