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How Well Are California Programs Working? It’s Hard to Say

Given the state’s budget deficit, legislative leaders are calling for reviews of how existing programs are working. But more than 70 percent of the 1,118 agency reports due in the past year have not been submitted yet.

A state senator works during session on suspense file day at the state Capitol in Sacramento on Sept. 1, 2023
A state senator works during session on suspense file day at the state Capitol in Sacramento on Sept. 1, 2023. (Photo by Rahul Lal for CalMatters)
Talk to any California legislator about the budget deficit the state is facing, and you might hear a familiar refrain: It’s not just about new programs. It’s also how well existing laws are working.

But that can be difficult to track — for the public and lawmakers, alike.

Many new laws include homework for relevant state and local agencies: A deadline to report back to the Legislature about the performance of the new program or commission. The Legislature, itself, says these reports “provide crucial oversight to ensure effective implementation of programs.”

But more than 70 percent of the 1,118 reports due in the past year were not submitted to the Office of Legislative Counsel, the public repository for the reports, according to a CalMatters analysis of its records. And about half of those that were filed were late. (About 230 were reports required from multiple agencies.)

The office’s website for these reports isn’t widely known about and isn’t comprehensive, but it’s the only system for tracking them across state government. The office said that it does not have information on the percentage of reports filed, and that it removes reports from its website one year after their initial due date, even if they’re filed late, as long as they aren’t required on an ongoing basis.

In theory, these reports could be used to avoid introducing duplicate or unnecessary bills. A total of about 2,000 are put in the hopper each year, and governors sometimes cite duplication in vetoing measures, in addition to raising cost concerns and policy reasons.

Last year, Newsom vetoed 156 bills. In an Oct. 7 batch on health care, he blocked one to require Medi-Cal to cover medication abortion, which he called “well intentioned, but unnecessary,” and another calling for a state database of mental health providers for postpartum depression, which he said would be “duplicative of existing programs and resources.”

“The Legislature, in requiring these reports, is making the decision that this policy area needs to be further explored in order to properly legislate,” said Brittney Barsotti, general counsel for the California News Publishers Association. “If those reports aren’t being completed or being made available to the public, then it could be hindering the policy process.”

One example: Assemblymember Tom Lackey said that one of his bills in 2022 might have been very different had a California Highway Patrol report been filed on time.

That bill re-authorized an inspection exemption for some agricultural vehicles, created by a 2016 law he also authored, which directed the CHP to report back to the Legislature about the impact of the exemption by Jan. 1, 2022. While the report was completed in October 2021, it wasn’t released to legislators until August 2022, seven months late and one day after they passed Lackey’s reauthorization bill.

“The delayed report could’ve changed the bill,” the Palmdale Republican said in an interview. “If we had it before, we could have modified the bill to be more meaningful because now we’re probably going to have to redress it a third time because there’s a sunset, and we could’ve prevented that if the information had come quicker.”

“When you have to duplicate over and over again, that’s a waste of resources, a waste of time, and it’s frustrating,” Lackey added.

The Highway Patrol says that sometimes reports just take longer. “The CHP makes every attempt to submit reports to the Legislature within the statutory timeline,” Jaime Coffee, its communications director, wrote in an email. “Occasionally, reports require additional review and analysis that delay the submittal.”

But the report that the Highway Patrol drafted in 2021 doesn’t show up on the legislative counsel’s reports website because reports are removed one year after they’ve been filed. It’s available on the patrol website.

Assemblymember Phil Ting, who served as budget committee chairperson from 2015 through last year, said delayed or missing information also plagues plans state agencies or boards are supposed to make for the future.

“One of our major jobs is to provide oversight over the entire state government,” said the San Francisco Democrat. “Oftentimes, when reports aren't filed or information is not brought forward to the committee, it’s very frustrating.”

How Legislators Do Research

According to state statutes, any report required or requested by law must be submitted to the Secretary of the Senate as a printed copy, as an electronic copy to the Chief Clerk of the Assembly, and as an electronic or printed copy to the Office of Legislative Counsel. Upon receiving the reports, the Assembly clerk and Senate secretary print them in the journal and might refer them to the relevant policy committee.

Since 2013, the Office of Legislative Counsel has been required to make the list of local and state agency reports accessible to the public to increase transparency and create “a repository for information” that “more effectively allows for tracking the completion of a report.”

But it’s not always clear whether a missing report hasn’t been completed, or if it was completed, but wasn’t submitted to the Office of Legislative Counsel.

The lack of reliability may be why some lawmakers and consultants say they don’t often use the website. Instead, they gather intel from multiple sources. Some legislators receive reports through their policy committees. There’s also the Legislative Information Systems public website that provides bill language, votes and analysis. Lawmakers can also reach out to the Legislative Analyst’s Office or the state auditor. They can also ask state agencies directly, though that’s not always a quick process.

And some lawmakers, like Assemblymember Jacqui Irwin, have their own internal tracking systems on their bills, as the Thousand Oaks Democrat displayed on social media.

First-term Sen. Lola Smallwood-Cuevas, a Los Angeles Democrat who was just appointed as labor committee chairperson, said one challenge as a new lawmaker is trying to stay on top of the wealth of information available on any given topic, so a clearinghouse of objective resources would be helpful.

“Education is power, knowledge is power,” she said. “My team has done a great job of just digging in and finding resources. But certainly, the more we invest in those sorts of areas for learning using different formats and tools, I think it serves everyone.”

The California State Library also provides legislators with research and reports on related bills from prior years. In one case, Andrew Mendoza, Lackey’s legislative director, was tracking down information for a bill related to child abuse. The only available copy of a report was on paper at the library, he told CalMatters. Inquiries to the library from legislators or the governor’s office are treated as confidential requests to allow staff to explore bill ideas in the early stages.

There’s also the California Open Data portal, which collects information from state agencies. But only 58 of the 237 state agencies and commissions have submitted data.

But who is supposed to make sure reports are actually submitted or made public? There doesn’t seem to be one source.

The state auditor’s office could evaluate the work of a specific agency. Until December, the Legislature had a Committee on Accountability and Administrative Review, whose job was to study how well state programs were implemented and run. But it only held one oversight hearing in 2022 and only three in 2023.

As part of his committee reorganization announced last November, Assembly Speaker Robert Rivas disbanded the accountability panel and shifted its duties to a budget subcommittee tasked with examining how effectively the state is spending money. The committee will be led by Assemblymember Avelino Valencia, a Democrat from Anaheim.

“Delivering effective programs for taxpayer dollars is our perennial responsibility,” the Salinas Democrat said in December. “This subcommittee will closely examine what is, and isn’t, getting the job done.”

Senate President Pro Tem Mike McGuire, who was sworn in to the post last week, said he will be “digging into the issue” of the lack of oversight of past laws.

Asked what the governor can do to increase accountability on reports, Alex Stack, a spokesperson for Gov. Gavin Newsom, said in an email: “The state is required to produce a high volume of annual recurring reports on a wide range of programs and expenditures, with a commitment to transparency, accuracy, and high quality — all while striving to meet deadlines. Where legislative staff signal that a specific report is needed urgently to inform a decision, those can be prioritized."

Improving Public Access

Timely reports could help lawmakers avoid introducing unnecessary or duplicative bills, though some legislators might do so regardless of existing laws or programs — to start a conversation, or in response to constituent requests.

But there’s another key reason they’re important: For Californians to advocate for their needs, they need information.

That’s why last year, Sen. Kelly Seyarto introduced a bill to expand which reports are made available to the public. 

“Constituents cannot know if their members are effectively representing them if those constituents lack the information necessary to determine their best interests,” the Murrieta Republican wrote in the analysis of the bill, which was signed into law last September.

“Expanding existing agency reporting requirements to encompass all legislative reports is a small adjustment that will go a long way to ensure all Californians have equal access and opportunity to evaluate the same information legislators use to make important policy decisions.”
California State Sen. Kelly Seyarto talks with state Sen. Brian Dahle
State Sen. Kelly Seyarto, a Murrieta Republican, talks with state Sen. Brian Dahle, a Bieber Republican, during session at the state Capitol in Sacramento on Aug. 24, 2023. (Photo by Rahul Lal for CalMatters)
But reports aren’t always intended to influence decision-making. Sometimes, ordering a report instead of introducing a new bill is a way to punt a difficult issue down the road.

And other factors can impact how useful a report actually is.

One example: The 2016 Voter’s Choice Act, which allows counties to opt into mailing every voter a ballot, expanding in-person early voting, allowing voters to cast a ballot at any vote center in their county and providing ballot drop-off locations. The law required the Secretary of State to report on how elections went in counties that opted into this model within six months of the vote, starting in 2018.

Reports for the 15 Voter’s Choice counties in the 2020 election, however, were not filed until 2022. That meant other counties couldn’t look at that data to decide whether to opt in to that model. But many counties made their decisions based on other factors. Mail balloting expanded during the COVID pandemic, and under a 2021 law, all voters statewide receive ballots in the mail making the reports less relevant.  

At a December hearing of the Senate elections committee, in response to an inquiry by Sen. Steve Glazer, the deputy Secretary of State said the late reports were due to the office being understaffed, especially as the number of participating counties grew.

While not disputing that the Voter’s Choice Act had increased participation, “it's a challenge to actually be very clear on exactly why people participate or don't,” the Orinda Democrat said at the hearing. “One of the things that we strive for as policymakers is really hard data, objective hard data, so that we can make good choices.”

Susan Shelley, vice president of communications for the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, said it’s important to review programs such as the Voter’s Choice Act alongside other laws implemented during the pandemic to see how the policies are working together.

“At a time when the Legislature is confronting a budget deficit, it is more important than ever to go back and look at previous legislation and review the effectiveness of programs already implemented,” she said.

This article was first published by CalMatters. You can read the original article here.
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