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New Assembly panel goes on a quiet hunt for Capitol waste

March 02, 2009|GEORGE SKELTON
  • Assemblyman Hector De La Torre (D-South Gate) is chairman of the Accountability and Administrative Review Committee. "Nobody ever doubles back and checks to see how the money is being spent and whether it can be spent better. This committee will be about looking back.?
Assemblyman Hector De La Torre (D-South Gate) is chairman of the Accountability… (Luis Sinco / /Los Angeles…)

FROM SACRAMENTO — In a small hideaway hearing room at California's Capitol, something unique happened last week. A new legislative committee convened with the single goal of making state government more efficient and less costly.

The event drew no attention. There were more committee members (14) than people in the audience. No reporters.

But, unlike most low-profile committees, members here didn't duck out soon after a quorum was counted. They hung around attentively, participating for the entire two-hour hearing. They seemed to be curious about whether this committee concept might actually work.

Creation of the Assembly Accountability and Administrative Review Committee -- an eye-glazing name, unfortunately -- is at least one positive result of the state's deficit debacle.

Democrats now are acknowledging that waste -- if not its fabled cousins fraud and abuse -- exists throughout state government. And they intend to work hard at rooting it out. That's what they say.

It's the least Californians should expect after being told to dig deeper for $12.5 billion in higher taxes to help rescue the state from a $42-billion budget deficit. It's less about the dollar amount of any savings than about a sincere effort to eradicate government waste.

The committee chairman, Assemblyman Hector De La Torre (D-South Gate), describes government as "an onion," with politicians "layering on programs and pet projects layer after layer."

"Nobody ever doubles back and checks to see how the money is being spent and whether it can be spent better. This committee will be about looking back."

And why don't lawmakers reexamine their products?

"Term limits," replies De La Torre, who plans to run for state insurance commissioner when he's termed out next year. "Nobody cares to look back when your time is up in only six years. It's not sexy. It's the grunt work of government.

"Most politicians prefer to check the boxes. Do an education bill. Check the box. Do a public safety bill. Check the box. Do a healthcare. . . ."

The committee was De La Torre's brainstorm. "I'm a cheap progressive," he asserts.

The assemblyman was looking for a new gig last year after being fired as Rules Committee chairman by then-Speaker Fabian Nunez (D-Los Angeles). De La Torre had opposed Nunez's proposal to provide "golden handshakes" for Assembly staffers who retired. The shakes were approved, and 55 aides grabbed them. Some were leaving anyway.

"I was cast out in the wilderness," De La Torre recalls. After Nunez left, he proposed the anti-waste committee to new Speaker Karen Bass (D-Los Angeles). She endorsed it.

Republicans have been advocating such an effort for years. But they're perpetually the minority party.

The ranking Republican on the committee, Assemblywoman Audra Strickland of Thousand Oaks, says she's "very hopeful this will turn into an opportunity to look at the fraud, the waste, the abuse."

"I don't know why we can't make that No. 1," she says, "rather than always cuts in programs for foster kids and seniors and pink slips to teachers."

What fraud? I asked. She cited the filing of charges last summer in Los Angeles County against 21 people accused of bilking more than $2 million from a state-funded in-home care program for the disabled and elderly. Some defendants have pleaded guilty; other cases are pending.

"If that's the tip of the iceberg," Strickland continues, "we have a lot of work to do."

In fact, the state Senate is looking hard at the $1.6-billion program, called In-Home Supportive Services.

"It's one of the fastest growing programs and gets accused of having fraud, waste and abuse," says Senate leader Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento). "I feel very strongly about its need. When people can get support inside their home, they don't end up as often in nursing homes that cost the taxpayers a whole lot more money."

But Steinberg adds that Democrats who advocate such social services have an obligation to make sure they're run efficiently and as intended. So he has created a new Office of Oversight and Outcomes to investigate their effectiveness.

The Senate's new "strike force," as Steinberg calls it, also expects this year to look at Medi-Cal, prisons and education.

Legislators have a special motivation to probe costly programs. Hardly anyone expects the recent deficit-reduction plan to hold up. They're anticipating that hard times will continue and tax revenue will keep slipping below projections. So they'll be forced to make more spending cuts.

During the maiden meeting of the Assembly committee, it learned about one striking example of inefficiency and incoordination. The Legislature over the years has ordered up more than 2,800 reports from state agencies that still haven't been delivered. Some are "in the mail." Some have been ignored. Some no longer make sense, if they ever did.

"This is a snapshot of state government at work and some of its inefficiencies," observed freshman Assemblyman Curt Hagman (R-Chino Hills).

In truth, many report requests are sops to lawmakers whose bills have been killed and who, as a consolation, are allowed to order up a study.

The committee told the agencies to compile lists of useful and wasteful reports -- and report back for orders.

I suppose it's a start.

--

george.skelton@latimes.com

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