This Once-Popular Public Policy Tool Could Be Key to States’ Budget Futures

Coordinating commissions have fallen out of favor. It’s time to bring them back.
June 2019
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By Justin Marlowe  |  Columnist
Endowed Professor of Public Finance and Civic Engagement at the Daniel J. Evans School of Public Policy & Governance at the University of Washington

Gov. Jerry Brown recently retired after two stints and 16 years of leading California. When historians evaluate his legacy, they’ll surely highlight his efforts on issues like conservation and criminal justice reform. But they’ll probably overlook his history with an obscure state agency known as the California Postsecondary Education Commission. They shouldn’t. Arcane, bureaucratic coordinating commissions like CPEC could be central players in the future of state budgeting.

Coordinating commissions -- also known as authorities, boards and committees -- are charged with deciding how to allocate and manage state dollars for services with large, local economic consequences. They’re most common in areas like higher education, transportation and economic development. A typical commission has 10 to 20 members appointed by the governor, the state legislature or a mix of both. Roughly two-thirds of the states have some sort of commission; many have several to cover different policy areas.

Unlike a study or an investigative commission, coordinating commissions are based on the premise that a statewide plan is more than the sum of its local parts. Absent coordination, local actors compete for state legislators’ affection. That can lead to duplicative, inefficient spending. Commissions can help minimize political shenanigans by engaging all those local actors in a comprehensive planning, budgeting and policymaking process. The result, in concept at least, is a spending plan based on well-defined goals that balance local benefits with statewide priorities.

With that in mind, legislators granted commissions considerable power throughout the 20th and early 21st centuries. Commissions appointed state agency directors and exercised oversight over billions of state dollars. Perhaps most important, they made controversial decisions about highway tolls, state university tuition rates and other politically unpopular taxes and fees. Not surprisingly, they also clashed with university presidents, regional economic development directors and other local stakeholders who believed they focused too much on the big picture and not enough on needs at the ground level.

But despite these disagreements, the evidence suggests commissions work. Studies have shown that when a transportation commission helped to craft a state’s long-range infrastructure plan, that state managed its transportation infrastructure more efficiently and effectively. Moreover, states with transportation commissions were also more likely to craft transportation budgets around performance targets for highway conditions and safety. There’s similar evidence in higher education. For states looking to stretch limited dollars, commissions were a reasonably cheap and effective tool.

I say “were” because all that changed with the Great Recession. As resources became scarcer, shared goals gave way to “fend for yourself” strategies. Universities beefed up their on-campus budgeting and planning staffs. Transportation departments developed new capital improvement plans independent of their coordinating commissions. Regional economic development directors hired lobbyists to take their message straight to state legislators.

Commissions haven’t been the same since. Many were relegated to administrative tasks such as compliance with federal reporting rules. Some were absorbed into state agencies. Others were disbanded altogether. Gov. Brown effectively shut down CPEC in 2011.

But the tide might be turning as state leaders looking for fresh solutions are seeking to breathe new life into old commissions. Gov. Gavin Newsom, who succeeded Brown in January, has floated a plan to reconstitute CPEC. Gov. Jared Polis of Colorado has a similar plan for higher education. Governors and state legislators in Delaware, Massachusetts and Minnesota have proposed new funding to beef up staffing, technology and other capacities to rebuild their states’ transportation commissions and regional economic development commissions.

As we prepare for the next recession, whenever it may be, coordinating commissions could prove more valuable than ever. A few states seem to have realized that lesson already. Perhaps more will follow.