Shrinking State Government

Across the nation, governors are slashing and consolidating boards, commissions and agencies as part of a larger effort at reforming government.
March 2010
Paul W. Taylor
By Paul W. Taylor  |  Editor
Paul W. Taylor is the editor of Governing, Chief Content Officer for e.Republic, Inc. and senior advisor to the Center for Digital Government.

Butch Klaveano has a thing about weeds. The rancher and former commissioner of Garfield County, Wash., keeps vigilant watch for weeds in ditches and fields as he drives vast expanses of eastern Washington State.

It's been that way for the 35 years he's served on the state's Noxious Weed Control Board, which was created in 1975 to protect what is now an $8 billion agriculture industry from what Klaveano ominously calls "new invaders." As chair of the state board, it will fall to him to gavel the board's business to a close, permanently.

The weed board is one of 153 boards and commissions targeted for elimination by Gov. Christine Gregoire as part of a larger reform effort. The 2010 Legislature has reinstated 40 boards on the list, but the weed board wasn't among them.

Klaveano knows state policymakers must make tough choices and he "feels for them" wholeheartedly. But trying to balance the budget on the back of a volunteer board's per diem and travel allowance "doesn't make any sense at all."

The board's three-person staff will be transferred to the Department of Agriculture, but the members will be cut loose. Klaveano compares the shift to an Olympia-staffed operation to "letting the banker manage the ranch" at the cost of local knowledge and commitment.

The pushback against what had become board-and-commission creep across the country focuses on groups with limited constituency, and it comes at a time when states see the opportunity to rid themselves of the chronic administrative burden that often comes with them. But it doesn't stop there.

John Thomasian, director of the Center for Best Practices, the nonprofit consulting arm of the National Governors Association (NGA), says one-third of governors are confronting organizational consolidation up and down the executive branch, realizing "if you can't fit your cabinet around a normal conference table, you probably should look at making it smaller."

Unlike furloughs and layoffs, the results of these structural changes and the eventual (but perhaps not inevitable) attrition of head count in government won't come overnight. Thomasian reminds governors, "Some of the big savings you will not reap quickly." But, he adds, the nature of real leadership is to take the long view.

This month, Michigan unveils its most recent consolidated agency that combines technology, management and budget. The merger brings the number of Cabinet agencies to 15 - down from the constitutional cap of 20 but short of the target of eight. The key to Michigan's Cabinet consolidation is a better understanding of what lies underneath: 6,000 state-managed programs, as well as their budgets and personnel.

The policy framework that makes the consolidation possible, along with a system informally called "the tool" that allows policymakers to explore scenarios for effective combinations, could be remembered as an enduring part of Gov. Jennifer Granholm's legacy - a legacy that pointed the way to a government that's smaller, more focused and more affordable. That is, if the next administration uses it.

This reset in the states, as the NGA calls it, extends at least as far as Oregon, Nevada, Louisiana, Iowa and New York. More will join their number as the election nears and states grind toward recovery with a combination of substantive changes and the requisite amount of window dressing.

Back on the family farm, Klaveano wonders whether some of these new measures - and their effects, intended or not - might have something in common with new noxious weed varieties that end up being sold as potted plants at home improvement warehouses or on the Internet. "They look really, really pretty - until they escape."