For all the noise it makes, the Colorado legislature is a toothless tiger that rarely pounces on bureaucracy.
Even as Gov. Jared Polis boasts about the savings his administration is finding in government operations, state auditors are telling lawmakers that some state agencies continue to do a poor job fixing the problems they know are wasting time, money and public trust.
That’s why it seems so confounding that state agencies aren’t held to account by lawmakers. Nobody’s perfect, and state auditors are happy to point out the performance failings.
That’s well enough. The agencies go before the bipartisan, bicameral Legislative Audit Committee to atone for their audited sins. I’ve never seen one of them who didn’t say they were going to follow the audit recommendations. In fact, often they say the fix is already underway and there’s nothing but blue skies and no worries ahead.
Then time goes by. Then more time goes by. Eventually we find that some promises made while the ink is still fresh on the audit is a promise that’s as thin as the paper the audit was written on.
And when budgets are written, audits are too often disconnected.
This is one of the concepts that figures in the proposal by House Republican Leader Patrick Neville of Castle Rock to give more budget-writing power to existing legislative committees. The budget is written now by a bipartisan Joint Budget Committee, which doesn't come into contact with the agencies except when they make their pitch for the next year's funding. Losing funding is a more powerful incentive than a toothless tiger, I'm guessing confidently.
Lawmakers got a fresh reminder about the powerful force of government inertia recently.
My Colorado Politics colleague Michael Karlik exposed all this in a Nov. 7 piece.
He reported that in the past five years state agencies have agreed with 99% of the recommendations spelled out in audits, but only 93% were completed.
State Auditor Dianne E. Ray pointed to stubborn “repeat offenders” such as the governor’s Office of Information Technology.
“Some of these departments, it looks like what they're saying is, ‘Yeah, yeah, we’ll get right on it,’” said Rep. Lori Saine, R-Dacono, who sits on the Legislative Audit Committee. "And when they’re off the hot seat, they ignore it."
See, it's the legislators' job to keep that seat as warm as possible.
I know this, because I’ve head this story before. I wrote about it for my old employer, The Denver Post.
Five years ago state agencies told me they’d found administrative religion after the state auditors pointed out again that the agencies weren’t fixing the problems that they had agreed were problems.
Clearly, it’s hard to get fired from a government job, especially if you’re the government.
The legislature has the power to make government work as efficiently and responsively as they want, but it’s a question of culture and cost. Government operates a certain way, and that ship doesn’t turn easily or cheaply.
In 2010, they passed the SMART Government Act, which was aimed at tying agency budgets to performance. State audits and fixing problems they cite was supposed to be the yard stick. SMART stands for "state measurement for accountable, responsive, and transparent" government.
Accountable and responsible, however, haven't turned out to be universal concepts, or even much of a sticking point for the friendly and understanding lawmakers we've elected for nearly a decade.
Five years ago, then-Sen. Kent Lambert, a Republican from Colorado Springs, was ready to blow a gasket over it.
“Each one of these audits costs taxpayers $150,000 — even though the audit can save a lot more than that — so we need to make sure agencies follow their audit recommendations," he told me five years ago. "They can’t just go on.”
Alas, they have.
Mark Ferrandino, a Democrat from Denver who was House speaker when the SMART Government Act passed, conceded later that it had turned into more of a carrot than a stick, at least as far as compliance and budgets go.
“It’s a law that’s kind of hard to violate,” he said, adding, “A lot of it is very nuanced.”
During the 120-day legislative session from January to May each year, lawmakers talk about their aspirations for a better Colorado, about fixing the laws and spending money prudently for maximum benefit to the people.
We don't have money to pay teachers more. We don't have money to fix roads. We don't have money for the water plan. But we've got money to burn on waste. That's the subtext when the government ignores its own audits.
Government to most people happens when they pay their taxes, when they send their kids to school or when the cops of fire trucks show up at their door.
Sen. Rhonda Fields, a Democrat from Aurora who sits on the audit committee, was tired of bureaucratic excuses, after someone suggested to her that state government is still in flux with a new administration.
“No matter who’s in charge, there needs to be a high sense of urgency," she said. “I call them excuses, and I am kind of fed up with it.”