Financially ailing states seeking to cut bureaucratic sprawl have zeroed in on what might seem a vulnerable target: the countless advisory, advocacy and regulatory boards and commissions that ripple out from their capitals into infinite niches of human need and pursuit.
Iowa’s Grape and Wine Development Commission? Gone. The Committee on Agency Officials’ Salaries in Washington State? Done. The Advisory Commission on American and Francophone Cultural Affairs in Connecticut? No more.
Yet for all the cutting, far more boards are surviving scrutiny than succumbing to it. Obscure but obstinate, they are proving a surprisingly hardy species within the mysterious ecosystem called government. The efforts can seem an endless loop of relearning the same lesson, with bold plans for streamlining colliding with the reality that cutting many boards saves little money but can exact a high political price.
While their arcane names often prompt dismissive jokes, many boards serve serious purposes and vocal constituencies. Appointing their members also gives governors and lawmakers a means to reward supporters.
“We as legislators love to create boards and commissions,” said State Senator Staci Appelof Iowa, a Democrat. “We just don’t like to decommission them.”
For three years now, Gov. M. Jodi Rell of Connecticut, a Republican, has tried to eliminate the Permanent Commission on the Status of Women and its $1.2 million annual budget. But the group, which has played an advocacy role on issues like family leave and sexual assault, endures (although its budget has been reduced by more than half).
The commission’s executive director, Teresa Younger, noted that the word “permanent” was put in the name by “our founding mothers and fathers” when the commission was formed in 1973.
“They understood we had an ongoing role to play,” Ms. Younger said.
In Iowa, Ms. Appel, as a co-chairwoman of the new Government Reorganization Committee, helped lead a 10-month effort to reorganize government by consolidating agencies and services, and reducing boards and commissions.
Ms. Appel said the work yielded $187 million in savings, but relatively little of it came from cutting boards and commissions. And even as several Iowa commissions were consolidated, many retained separate offices. As the legislative session came to a close last week, some commissions that were cut altogether were riding back to life on last-minute amendments.
“They’re all trying to come back in,” Ms. Appel said.
Among them was the Hemophilia Advisory Committee.
“They’ll save a few thousands dollars in operational expenses,” Dr. Steven R. Lentz, director of the Hemophilia Treatment Center at the University of Iowa and a member of the committee, said of the plan to eliminate it. “But it may end up costing a lot more if they make a boneheaded decision about providing care for these patients in the future.”
Ms. Appel said she hoped that the Government Reorganization Committee would conduct similar reviews every other year. If it does, Iowa will not be the only state to start new boards and commissions in the name of contracting them.
In September, Gov. Gary R. Herbert of Utah, a Republican, formed the Advisory Commission to Optimize State Government. An excess of boards and commissions — the state has 400 executive boards alone, including the Naturopathic Formulary Peer Committee — “is one of the areas that the advisory commission is looking at,” said Angie Welling, a spokeswoman for the governor.
“Basically, what you’re doing is picking 100 fights,” said Billy Hamilton, a former deputy comptroller in Texas and former co-director of the California Performance Review, an aggressive but ultimately failed effort to streamline government in the state led by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2004.
Among the review’s most controversial proposals was a plan to eliminate 88 of the 339 state boards and commissions it evaluated, including many powerful regulatory groups with paid positions.
Mr. Hamilton said that while the current economic climate would seem ideal for paring down the extremities of government, the real savings was in core functions, like education and health care. Politicians, however, keep promising to eliminate the little things.
In January 2009, as Washington State faced a bleak budget deficit, State Senator Craig Pridemore listened as Gov. Christine Gregoire, also a Democrat, vowed in her State of the State address to sharply reduce the more than 400 boards and commissions.
“Here we go again,” Mr. Pridemore whispered to a colleague.
Mr. Pridemore then went on to lead a legislative effort last year that set out to cut about 200 commissions but ultimately shed just 18.
In this year’s address, Ms. Gregoire announced plans to eliminate still more boards and commissions.
Mr. Pridemore, however, decided not to sponsor a government reorganization bill that has moved through the Legislature this year.
“I came to the conclusion,” he said, “that it wasn’t worth the exercise.”
Here is a sample of boards and commissions that have been eliminated as part of state government streamlining efforts.
Swimming Pool Advisory Committee
State Substitute Medical Decision-Making Board
Anatomical Gift Public Awareness Advisory Committee
Governor’s Identity Theft Advisory Board
Governor’s Committee on Physical Fitness
Advisory Commission on American and Francophone Cultural Affairs
Special License Plate Review Board
Mortgage Broker Commission
Industry Cluster Advisory Committee