Per Bob Mercer's recommendation, I read the management and performance audit of the Legislative Research Council. It promised to be newsworthy, given that LRC director Jim Fry resigned ahead of the audit's release.
So what does this "critical report" say about the LRC that was so grave that it could induce the Legislature's Executive Board to order Fry to clean out his office by the end of the day, two weeks prior to his effective retirement date?
LRC employees are talented professionals who are dedicated to their work. Many of them have been employed by the LRC for decades. NCSL interviewed each LRC employee and found them to be the kind of highly skilled, hard-working professional experts that are common to state legislative workplaces.
Most South Dakota state legislators agree that the LRC staff are good at what they do [Angela Andrews, Tim Storey, and Brian Weberg, "Management and Performance Audit: Legislative Research Council Staff," National Council of State Legislatures, September 2013].
You should be so lucky to get a critical report like that at your next performance review.
NCSL identifies some clear management and performance problems among LRC staff. The LRC has mostly ignored its "Personnel Manual" since 1999, operating more by the implicit knowledge and habit of long-time employees than by formal policies. They blew off a formal performance review the Executive Board told them to do in 2010. They've been slacking off on issue memos compared to their 1990s pace (what, afraid bloggers will tear into them?).
But the NCSL report suggests that, if the LRC has any major problems, the blame lies more at the feet of our legislators... and ourselves, for being dummies and passing term limits in 1992:
Term limits began to take effect in South Dakota in 2000, and it probably is no coincidence that a decade or so later problems have started to crop up between the LRC and legislators. Prior to term limits, the LRC could more easily develop long-standing relationships with key legislators who knew the process, understood the LRC and who developed a collegial sense of shared purpose with LRC staff. Term limits changed most of that.
NCSL’s legislator interviews revealed fairly broad misunderstanding or lack of information about the LRC among both rank and file members and legislative leaders. Many members, we believe, may not understand that the LRC is exclusively a legislative agency and that its staff are employed by the Legislature, not by the executive branch. One former legislative leader was surprised to learn from us that the LRC staff are at-will employees.
Among other effects, term limits tend to erode the ability and willingness of legislators to learn about and attend to their institutional roles and duties. Legislators simply are not around the process and institution long enough to learn these nuances of the job, focusing their preciously limited time on their policy priorities. In South Dakota’s very part-time legislature, term-limited legislators have little time available to be in Pierre where they can develop a better understanding and connection to the LRC staff [NCSL 2013].
Speaking of attending to their duties, every sitting legislator received a survey from NCSL to gauge perceptions of the LRC's performance. The survey (see Appendix B of the NCSL report) had 43 questions, maybe 10 minutes of simple boxes to fill in, plus maybe 20 minutes of thoughtful written comments. 48% of legislators bothered to respond. (67% of Democratic legislators responded, compared to 43% of Republican legislators.)
The Legislature is as lazy about funding the LRC as it is about responding to surveys. NCSL reports that "South Dakota spends less on its legislature ($4,393,000) than any other state in the nation." Wyoming, the next-tightest legislative spender, puts twice as much money into cranking the legislative sausage-grinder. We also field the smallest legislative staff, just 22 LRC employees. Idaho's legislature has about the same number of members as ours, yet they hire 36 staffers to support their legislators. Those magic-longjohned conservatives in Utah elect one less legislator than we do, but they have a legislative staff of 85.
The South Dakota Legislature is a very small, very part-time and relatively inexpensive operation. This outcome is consistent with the "small government" philosophy of the state, its citizens and its political leaders.
As happens in education, our Republican leaders expect to get top-notch service without paying for it. And for the most part, they get that service. But if they want more from the LRC, they're going to have to pay for it. Three of NCSL's twelve recommendations call for hiring new LRC staff: a lawyer to help draft bills, another staffer to edit and proofread bills, and a computer person to bring the LRC IT crew to a whopping three. Staff costs big money.
Another recommendation calls on the LRC staff to do more outreach to help legislators understand what the LRC does. That recommendation includes the suggestion that LRC staff consider roadtrips to visit legislators in their home districts. That's going to cost time and per diems.
Four other recommendations call on LRC to get with modern management, write a policy manual, and hold regular meetings to engage all staff in strategic communication. Regular staff meetings and evaluations will take time that LRC staff currently devote to other tasks. If the Legislature wants to pile these duties on the next Jim Fry and company, it has an obligation to provide the resources necessary to fulfill those duties.
NCSL could avoid a lot of rigmarole by making just one big recommendation: repeal term limts. That would restore the institutional knowledge and LRC oversight that they say is lacking. Nothing doing, says NCSL:
Term limits will not go away. They remain popular with the public, despite the obvious problems that come with them. However, their impact is very much at the heart of problems that exist between the LRC and a large cohort of its client base. Efforts to improve this relationship and LRC services need to recognize how term limits have changed the environment in Pierre. Both the LRC staff and South Dakota legislators need to adapt to overcome the challenges of term limits [NCSL, 2013].
Sigh. Because we lack the sense to repeal a policy that saddles us with less experienced and attentive legislators, LRC members have to head to the conference room with Michael Scott.
In better news, the NCSL puts the kibosh on a suggestion some GOP legislators were hoping for: adding partisan staff to the LRC. The NCSL report says current LRC staff may be a bit too gun shy about attending closed caucus meetings (all they need, says the report, is a solid policy manual that gives them explicit CYA guidelines). But the NCSL (along with apparently a majority of our legislators) says partisan LRC staff is a bad idea:
NCSL interviews with legislators indicated a strong bias among most of them against the creation of partisan staff offices at the Legislatures. Many legislators also had a misunderstanding about how a partisan staff operation might work, with many thinking it would be an extension of the LRC. This is not an approach that would be functional. Instead, where partisan staff exist in citizen legislatures similar to South Dakota’s, they usually are hired by and work directly for the presiding officers and minority leaders in each chamber. Many partisan staff in citizen legislatures are jacks-of-all-trades, offering their bosses and caucus members a full range of planning, scheduling, research and sometimes limited media-relations services.
NCSL believes that this kind of staffing is redundant and unnecessarily expensive for South Dakota. We also believe that it is important to first shore up and expand the services available at the LRC before making any additional staffing decisions. If it becomes the case that a reinvigorated and better purposed LRC cannot adequately fulfill the needs of the legislative party caucuses, then it will be time to revisit this question [NCSL, 2013].
The NCSL shows the need for some clean-up on floor three, but no major fumigation. There needs to be at least as much clean-up in the attitudes of some Republican legislators, who consistently ranked the LRC lower on the NCSL survey than their Democratic counterparts even as they impose the Daugaardian fiscal austerity that makes it hard for the LRC and any other state agency to respond to increasing demands.
Republican leaders grousing about the LRC may find the real mess in just a few years. As long-time LRC staff join ex-director Fry in retirement, the state will find itself competing with law firms and IT companies for skilled replacements and new FTEs to fulfill the recommendations of the NCSL audit. "Now is the time to invest in new talent," says the NCSL. If we don't, we'll have a real mess in the Legislative Research Council.
Update 08:59 CDT: Conservative Republican Rep. Charlie Hoffman (R-23/Eureka) appears to get that we'll have to invest more in the LRC:
Republican Majority Whip Charlie Hoffman praises Fry, but says legislators want more staff on the LRC, so members can work more closely with lawmakers. The report for the NCSL also states lawmakers want the LRC to, "give advice about the process, policy and sometimes politics."
"In the terms of purchasing anything, you get what you pay for, and I don't believe as we're operating today, I don't believe the public is being served in the best interests of the government," Hoffman said [Brady Mallory, "Longtime LRC Director Resigns," KELOLand.com, 2013.09.26].