Smaller doesn’t mean efficient

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The report opened this way: “In this current climate of distrust of government…”

 

 

An introduction like that could be found in a lot of places these days, but it was in “The Structure of Government in New Mexico,” a 1994 report from New Mexico First. The organization’s Town Hall had examined how to make government more efficient, but participants were at least as concerned with making state government more responsive.

Efficiency and responsiveness — two sides of the coin. During good times we concern ourselves with responsiveness and during bad times, with efficiency in the form of a smaller state payroll. In the last ten years, we’ve seen the pendulum move both ways.

In 1999, then Gov. Gary Johnson often bragged that state government was more efficient because there were 1,200 fewer state employees. At the time, I didn’t hear anybody marveling at how efficient state government had become. What I heard was a lot of complaining about the length of time it took to get permits and licenses, pass inspections and transfer water rights &#151 or about any other business anybody might have with the state.

During the supposedly business-friendly Johnson-Bradley administration, it took Intel five years to get an air quality permit, and telecommunications deregulation stalled because regulators were backlogged. Getting anything from the State Engineer’s Office, which hadn’t computerized its records, required divine intervention.

The Legislature joined the party, and the injudicious budget chopping moved even Johnson to ask for $30 million for underfunded agencies. The same groups that now demand leaner government were then demanding that stage agencies be staffed up and funded properly.

There was a realization in a lot of sectors that “responsiveness” meant having enough qualified people to do the work. If your fishing license, or court record, or tax inquiry, or business permit or water transfer was sitting in a pile on the desk of some beleaguered state employee, what was that costing you?

When Bill Richardson entered the office, he had a big to-do list and wanted enough hands to do the work. Fair enough. But the numbers rose. And rose. And we saw some unfortunate muddling of politics and hiring.

So now a legislative task force is staring at state government as if it were a pork roast and trying to figure out where to slice. We’re hearing words like “reorganization” and “down-sizing,” but what does that mean?

Look back at the New Mexico First report, and there are some ironic suggestions. It called for an education secretary. Done. Good idea. It also called for combining the Corporation Commission and the Public Utilities Commission. Done. What a disaster, not just for the, uh, colorful personalities on the commission but because this cumbersome organization is simply unmanageable.

Candidate Diane Denish’s proposal to marry the departments of Tourism, Cultural Affairs and Economic Development and throw in state parks might save some money. It might just also slow down decision making, and for both economic development and tourism, timely decisions are important.

Many people are remembering how former Gov. Jerry Apodaca in the mid-1970s tamed an unruly mob of 117 agencies into 12 departments. The streamlining reduced waste and introduced accountability. So we know it’s do-able.

But distractions from the sidelines aren’t helping. The public employee unions should quit while they’re ahead; their members still have jobs. The government haters also need a reality pill: Lots of those employees do necessary work.

The task force agenda will begin by examining laws and court decisions and then will look at agency budgets, staffing and organizational structure. We hope they can look impassively at what people do on their jobs and not be tainted by political intrigue or hollering from the bleachers.

 


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