New commission to provide ‘deep dive’ into state programs’ costs, results

New commission to provide ‘deep dive’ into state programs’ costs, results

By MARY SELL, Alabama Daily News

Alabama lawmakers and Gov. Kay Ivey this year created a commission to take a “deep dive” into General Fund agencies’ programs and spending, information that could be used to make future funding choices.

The Commission on Evaluation of Services was born out of what some lawmakers say is a lack of information about the impact of state-funded services and how they’re helping the populations they’re supposed to serve.

Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, has been on budgeting committees during three governors’ administrations. He said when lawmakers allocate money, they don’t always know the results of the programs they’re funding.

“We don’t know if they’ve been evaluated, or if we’re funding programs that have never been evaluated and are never going to die because they’re never scrutinized — that makes no sense,” Orr said.

The legislation creating the commission was approved in the House and Senate with no opposition. The commission meets for the first time Sept. 30. It will include six lawmakers and six Ivey appointees.

Rep. Rich Wingo, R-Tuscaloosa, sponsored the legislation. When he was a freshman lawmaker, he said he was put on the House General Fund budget committee and asked to appropriate money while having little information about the effectiveness of agencies’ programs.

“I want a deep dive into agencies,” Wingo said recently. “To understand where the people’s money is going.” 

Both Wingo and Orr said the commission is not a witch hunt looking to shame agencies.

“I just want to know that when they ask us to appropriate money, my decisions are accurate,” Wingo said.

The state’s fiscal 2020 General Fund budget is $2.1 billion, an increase over recent years. But state agencies’ requests for funding always outpace available revenue.

“We’re always going to be a state with limited resources, so it’s very difficult for our legislators, if they have a little bit of extra monty, to decide where to put it,” said Othni Lathram, director of the Alabama Legislative Services Agency, its fiscal division provides impartial budget analysis to lawmakers.

Lathram said a goal in recent years is to get better data in order to get more bang for the buck in state agencies. For example, there are multiple programs within several state agencies that provide transportation to seniors in need. So, which one does it best and should get possible additional funding? 

“That’s the kind of stuff we’re now digging in and looking at,” Lathram said. 

Orr said the work of the commission has to be a joint endeavor between the Legislature and the executive branch, to which many agency leaders report. Ivey’s office last week referred questions about the commission to the Alabama Department of Finance.

“The Finance Department looks forward to seeing the results of the commission’s work,” deputy director Susan Wilhelm said. “All information is valuable and useful when determining how and where to allocate tax-payer dollars.”

The commission is new, but lawmakers have been moving in this direction for several years. In 2018, they approved a resolution that said “every program and activity performed by an agency receiving state funds should be identified and the premise, goals, objectives, and ultimately, the performance and outcomes of each program and activity, should be measured and quantified…”

It called for an evidence-based budgeting process for any new or expanded program of 10 of the state’s largest agencies, including Medicaid and corrections.

Created within the Legislative Services Agency was the Alabama Support Team for Evidence-Based Practices.

Funding for that program, referred to as ASTEP, and likely some staff will now be transferred to the new commission.

“I believe it will certainly pay for itself over time,” Orr said.

He said ineffective programs could be ended or overhauled.

“Everyone is in this to try to find a better, leaner way to do business,” Wingo said.