Monday, April 5, 2010

STATE GOVERNMENT: OVERHAUL

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STATE GOVERNMENT: OVERHAUL
The Richmond Times Dispatch Editorial


By midsummer, Gov. Bob McDonnell's government-reform commission is to present preliminary recommendations for restructuring state agencies. A final report is due by December. That's an aggressive timeline, but the panel will have the advantage of tilling some well-plowed ground. More than a dozen commissions have looked at state restructuring over the years, two of them fairly recently: George Allen's Blue Ribbon Strike Force, and the Wilder commission set up by Gov. Mark Warner.

Both of those efforts produced mixed but generally pleasing results. Virginia now regularly wins awards for good governance. Since the commonwealth is being measured against other states, that might strike some as winning an award for best boxer at Princeton, or world's tallest midget. Still, it suggests a certain unlikelihood that the McDonnell panel will find grotesque levels of waste, fraud, and abuse. The low-hanging fruit has been plucked. The new commission will face a challenge building on the work of those who have gone before.

It will face an even bigger challenge if it is presented with a demand to produce tremendous savings, rather than being asked merely to tinker at the margins -- and not only because of the recent recession, which has driven state spending back to the level at which it stood a few years ago.

. . .

The simple fact is that Virginia's budget has four huge drivers: transportation, education, health care, and corrections. Comparatively speaking, everything else is mere window dressing. Within those four categories, there are only two ways to achieve major reductions: find creative, low-cost ways to perform a function, or stop performing it altogether.

Take corrections as an example. The ideal way to lower the cost of prisons is to reduce crime rates. Government policies can do this to some extent, but a certain level of crime is beyond government's ability to prevent. Before the Allen administration, Virginia held down the cost of corrections by accepting a higher level of criminality: Offenders were paroled after serving short sentences, which left them free to re-offend. The abolition of parole, a hugely popular reform, helped cut crime rates and drove up the cost of incarceration.

The commonwealth could reduce the prison population in a number of ways. It could re-institute parole. It could decide to de-criminalize certain activity, such as recreational drug use. Or it could find alternatives to expensive incarceration, such as electronically monitored home detention. But given the abysmally low pay among corrections officers, the spartan conditions of the prisons, and the overcrowding that already exists in local jails, Virginians should not expect to reap huge savings from a vague search for "efficiency."

Education offers another opportunity to make incisive policy decisions. State spending on Virginia's public schools grew four times as fast as enrollment for the decade ending in 2008, without corresponding improvements in outcomes. But we would wager that most parents do not think their children's teachers are overpaid, or that their schools are overbuilt. Nor is Virginia likely to eliminate, say, 10th grade as a cost-saving measure. A system of private-school vouchers could reap huge savings while increasing per-pupil spending for students who remained in the public schools, but it is a mere fantasy in the current political climate.

One major driver of education inflation in recent years is the proliferation of individualized instruction plans for students with developmental or other disabilities. Eliminating IEPs either by mainstreaming those students or kicking them out of the public schools would achieve major savings -- but at what cost? These are the kinds of hard questions that real reform will have to ask.

. . .

Virginians might find it palatable to shut down entire secretariats or smaller agencies, although probably not many. Does the commonwealth really want to do without the Virginia Institute for Marine Science or J. Sargent Reynolds Community College? Can their functions be absorbed by other agencies? Perhaps; perhaps not.

Finally, the recent travails involving VITA and Northrop Grumman have shown that even in cases where a clear case for consolidation and privatization across agencies might exist, the implementation might not prove so simple as it looks on paper. Allen's efforts to overhaul VDOT represent another cautionary tale; the savings from that effort cost more in the long run than the status quo would have.


None of this is meant to throw cold water on the idea of reforming state government, an idea we wholeheartedly endorse. We have argued for many years that Virginia ought to get out of the business of selling liquor, for instance. We would like to see greater opportunities for school choice, and more use of tolls to make the cost of transportation more transparent. There is even room to debate proposals such as decriminalizing marijuana or offering drug users treatment instead of hard time. These are the sorts of ideas that the McDonnell panel ought to wrestle with. Putting a few forms online and consolidating accounting departments are fine ideas, but they will not produce the kind of transformation we think McDonnell wants -- or Virginia needs.


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1 comment:

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