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Perspective: Committee process can change state policies

Perspective: Committee process can change state policies

March 23rd, 2014 by State Rep. Jay Barnes, R-Jefferson City in News

As chairman of the Missouri House Committee on Government Oversight and Accountability, I've led several investigations into wasteful or misguided state government programs.

The committee was formed in 2011 to investigate the Mamtek debacle in Moberly. After a series of hearings and proposed legislation, which a blogger from Bloomberg News called the "one bright spot in this whole sad tale," many of the committee's recommendations were adopted by the Department of Economic Development through administrative rules.

Ever since, the committee has worked to (1) ensure the State Board of Education detects and deters cheating on statewide assessments, (2) protect the privacy of your personal information you share with the Department of Revenue, including conceal-carry permit information, and (3) protect welfare reform by persuading the Department of Social Services to cancel a contract which paid a per person bounty for every Missourian it signed up for permanent disability benefits.

In each instance, the committee made a positive impact on state law without even passing a bill. Instead, we identified a problem and worked with the relevant state agency to change state policies going forward.

Last summer, after a series of startling pieces of investigative journalism by Jeremy Kohler of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, it appeared the committee would need to hold a series of hearings on Brownfield Tax Credits - incentives designed to help developers renovate properties with major environmental problems. Kohler's reporting exposed a series of Brownfield projects for which it appeared that the property developer had fixed bidding processes to increase costs to Missouri taxpayers.

News coverage suggested there was a major transparency problem in the program. All of the issues raised could have been solved if Brownfield tax credit developers were required to bid and complete Brownfield projects with procedures as open to public scrutiny and competitive bidding as ordinary government spending.

In late June, I sent document requests to the state agencies charged with implementing the Brownfield tax credit program. After some preliminary discussions, I informed the decision-makers at the agencies that I believed the biggest problem was a lack of transparency and that legislation would be necessary to subject Brownfield tax credits to the same system of open bidding as occurs in typical government spending. Also, after reviewing the statutes creating the Brownfield tax credits, I was convinced that a new statute was unnecessary because the Department of Economic Development already had the authority to require public bidding by administrative rule.

Thanks to DED, I received word that it would begin the process of promulgating administrative rules to ensure more open and accountable Brownfield bids. But complicated administrative rules don't just happen overnight. They took six months here. But on March 17, those new rules appeared in the Missouri Register. These new rules require Brownfield developers to submit preliminary cost estimates prepared by independent, licensed architects or engineers, and to publiclybid all purchases of goods and services over $25,000. As a result, taxpayers will receive better protection against any potential misuse of Brownfield tax credit proceeds.

In grade school, we learn how a bill becomes a law. We watch the classic School House Rock video "I'm Just a Bill" and think of lawmaking as a somewhat orderly process. In practice, the orderly process is the exception. The simple bill can be killed about 40 different ways. The most common death is quiet and natural, caused by a legislative calendar that doesn't leave enough time to pass every bill worth passing.

In fact, most new "laws" or state government policies come about through one of two alternative methods. It can become "law" either: (1) through a new or changed administrative rule or practice, as was the case with many of the examples cited in this article, or (2) via amendment to the old-fashioned bill, a process I'll describe in a later column, which is a little more complicated and free-wheeling than you might think based on your grade school civics lessons.

As your state representative, I've used the opportunity as chair of the House's investigatory committee to improve state policies by working with state departments to fix them without the need for legislation. It's not ever easy. And it doesn't work for everything. But, when we've had the opportunity to improve state policy for the better through cooperation rather than legislation, our committee has taken it.

Other Happenings

Medicaid Reform: The House Committee on Government Oversight and Accountability continues hearings on HB 1901 this week, relating to Medicaid reform. I anticipate two days of marathon hearings on Monday and Tuesday.

State Budget: The House will pass the state budget this week. Unlike the fairy-tale and pixie-dust proposal put forth by Gov. Nixon, the budget we pass will be balanced, which requires more difficult decisions.

Exercise! Gov. Nixon kicked off the 2014 100 Missouri Miles challenge this week in Columbia. Proud to say I'm already at 164 miles - with an asterisk because a whole bunch of them were on the treadmill and, well, I guess the challenge had not started yet!

State Rep. Jay Barnes, R-Jefferson City, represents Missouri's 60th District.