Money isn't reason to revamp

A friend who used to work for one of those deeply troubled state agencies that make great poster children for government restructuring asked me recently what I thought would happen if the legislature approved the initiatives I had been advocating for 20 years. Would it take care of our state's budget problems?

In a word, no.

Most states have a more rational government than we do, yet every state is dealing with budget problems. What our dysfunctional government does is make it more difficult to manage our reduced revenues. What combining similar agencies and giving the governor more control over them would do is make the budget cuts a little less difficult to manage.

But the primary reason we need to overhaul our executive branch of government has nothing to do with saving money - which, contrary to popular rhetoric, is not the only thing to consider when evaluating a government. It's to enable accountability; to put the one person nearly everyone believes is in charge of our government - the governor - in charge of our government.

Restructuring the government does have the potential to reduce costs - particularly if we combine some of our 80 or so state agencies. We save money when we replace the directors of five natural resources and environmental agencies with one director of a combined agency, or the directors of four economic development agencies with one. We save money when we make similar changes with the formerly separate agencies' legal, personnel, accounting and other back-office functions.

Corrections Director Bill Byars, for instance, recently told a House panel that he expected to save $5.8 million by consolidating the administrative functions of the corrections and probation departments, which would be merged under the budget the House debated this week. That budget also absorbs the Arts Commission and State Museum into the Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism; merges the Department of Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse Services into the Department of Mental Health, and adds in the Guardian ad Litem Program that is currently mis-housed in the governor's office.

Any potential for significant savings is longer-term, as combined agencies move from rooming together to marriage - that is, adopting shared missions so that, say, the one big health agency that used to be six agencies shares information across divisions, and might be able to assign a single case worker to a family that now is monitored by as many as six.

Mr. Byars illustrated one way that could work, when he said at his confirmation hearing that he wanted the Department of Probation, Pardon and Parole to be able to hire more parole agents to provide post-release supervision for young convicts. As that program reduced the number of people who return to prison, he said, he would like to use the money this saved the prisons to hire even more parole officers, and save even more money.

What Mr. Byars wants to do goes well beyond simply saving significant money by eliminating duplication. It shows how the married-missions approach could result in smarter policies. And that is the key to not only surviving economic rough spots but thriving, in good times and bad.

Contact Scoppe, a columnist for The (Columbia) State, at cscoppe@thestate.com.