Hundreds of state boards up for review

More than 200 state boards and commissions will have to justify their existence to lawmakers starting in January as the legislature’s Sunset Review Committee begins a two-year process of weeding out unneeded entities.

The groups range from small, three-person committees of state officials that meet but don’t spend any tax dollars, to organizations with hundreds of employees and multi-million-dollar budgets.

The state has 459 boards, commissions, committees, and councils. Some monitor professional trades (the Chiropractic Board, the Engineers and Surveyors Board); some serve groups of Ohioans or make legislative recommendations (Ohio Commission on Fatherhood); and some discuss, monitor or manage issues related to places, industries or groups of interest to the state (Lake Erie Commission; Hispanic/Latino Affairs Commission.)

Many are not subject to the review process. Others have to be re-approved every five years or else will be shut-down.

The review process that kicks off next month has, in the past, run aground briefly over political fights or efforts to protect sacred cows. But the goal in the end is to recertify only those entities that are still serving a purpose.

“There’s one thing that government is good at, and it’s creating commissions,” said newly-elected state Rep. Kyle Koehler. “It seems like sometimes we create a commission to study a commission.”

Giving boards a ‘formal burial’

The nine-member Sunset Review Committee includes three members each from the House and Senate, and three members appointed by the Governor. They will meet about every month beginning in January and are tasked with evaluating the hundreds of state agencies set to expire at the end of 2016 to determine if they should be continued or abolished.

“This was created to help us get rid of some of that waste,” Koehler said. “We need to make sure that we’re cutting them back.”

Lawmakers who have participated in the process in the past admit there is sometimes a hesitancy to remove existing commissions from the state’s roles.

Another impediment to culling the herd is that there are industries regulated by the boards whose members insist on separate entities to oversee everything from different types of doctors to different breeds of horses.

Some of the smaller commissions pay their members expenses to attend meetings only and make revenues from their operations; they may create more bureaucracy, but they doesn’t necessarily cost taxpayers more money.

The Sunset Review Committee last met from November 2009 to May 2010 and made hundreds of recommendations which were enacted by the passage of Senate Bill 171 in 2011.

The bill, co-sponsored by Sen. Chris Widener (R-Springfield), abolished or “sunset” 85 boards and commissions, cutting more than $6.7 million from the state’s budget. It renewed 191 agencies of the 276 examined.

“When the state is facing an unprecedented budget deficit, it is prudent for the legislature to be sure that taxpayer dollars are being used to their maximum efficiency,” Widener said in announcing the bill in 2011. The committee’s recommendations are meant, “to relieve the state of duplicative, underutilized and unnecessary services,” he said.

Entities abolished that year included the “Advisory council to select the neutral third party entity to conduct pavement selection analysis,” and the “Multidisciplinary Council to advise on voluntary clean-up standards (EPA).”

In 2004, the committee recommended the abolition of 34 agencies and retention of 203.

State Rep. Fred Strahorn (D-Dayton) served on the sunset committee last time and said the process is good for removing pieces of bureaucracy that are not longer serving a valid purpose.

“If the thing isn’t really doing what it’s supposed to, it should go,” Strahorn said. “Quite frankly, there are some things that we do that should be automatically sunsetted.”

The goal of the committee, he said, is to reexamine government agencies that may have been created piecemeal over time and no longer make sense, or those that were created in a vacuum and have caused duplication.

Currently, any review-able agency that made it through the last sunset process and was in existence on Jan. 1, 2011, is set to expire on Dec. 31, 2016. Some that have been created since then have their expiration dates set in 2016 and 2017 as well.

The Sunset Review Law itself also expires unless it’s renewed by the General Assembly.

“This is the process to make sure that things don’t get created and just exist forever,” said Dan DeSantis, a research associate with the Legislative Services Commission.

Many of the boards and commissions up for review have already completed their assigned tasks — submitting a report to the Governor, awarding a contract or investigating an allegation of wrongdoing, for example — and cease to exist except on paper.

“There’s a number that really aren’t maybe physically meeting anymore,” DeSantis said. Those simply need to be given a “formal burial,” he said, by passing a law officially abolishing them.

Beyond that the committee looks for entities that could be combined with other agencies for efficiency and those whose function is simply no longer needed.

One of the agency’s up for review this round is the County Sheriff’s Standard Car Marking and Uniform Commission, which is made up of three sheriffs appointed by the Governor.

Clark County Sheriff Gene Kelly said the standards set by this group are important, making sure that deputy cars, uniforms and equipment look the same throughout the state, but he wasn’t sure if a separate commission was needed to create them.

“We have a commission, but we also have these Buckeye Sheriff’s Association meetings. We always talk about uniform issues and take a vote,” he said.

Another big red flag that something might need to be abolished is how much the committee costs, Strahorn said.

Many committees and advisory councils are made up of lawmakers, who don’t get paid extra to participate, and appointees by the Governor or other state officials.

Payment for appointees varies. Some board members are paid per meeting, others per year. Some are reimbursed for expenses only, like travel.

The seven members of the Ohio Casino Control Commission are paid $30,000 per year to meet once a month and complete an annual report. They are supported by a staff of 120, which handles all the day-to-day operations of regulating Ohio’s four casinos with a total budget of $13.1 million, according to the Governor’s funding recommendations for 2014-15.

The 15 members of the Hispanic-Latino Affairs Commission are compensated for days they actually meet, which is about six times per year. They govern a staff of four employees which a budget of $349,000.

The 27 members of the Educator Standards Board are not compensated at all, but educators can be granted paid leave from their regular jobs to attend meetings.

Industries say diversification isn’t duplication

The list of state agencies includes licensing boards for many professions, from chiropractors and certified public accountants to massage therapists and dog breeders. Some of these professions have been combined under one board’s umbrella while others maintain their own separate entity.

There are 39 different occupational licensing and regulatory boards with more than $80 million in budgeted spending each year.

Some of them, like the Medical Board, oversee more than 20 different professions. Others are responsible for the licensing and oversight of one specialty, like the Motor Vehicle Repair Board.

Local professionals said it would be a hard sell to get boards to combine efforts.

“The barbers want to keep it a separate entity. They wouldn’t want to combine,” said Leslie Quinn, junior cosmetology instructor at the Springfield Clark Career Technology Center.

The program’s curriculum and testing is overseen by the Cosmetology Board, which manages 23 different licenses including more than 100,000 individuals and nearly 13,000 salons and tanning facilities.

The state Barber Board oversees about 2,900 barber shops and schools and about 8,000 barbers and teachers.

“It would be too huge,” senior instructor Susan Hoover said. “I wouldn’t want any of their jobs to have to regulate all that.”

For the most part, the public is unaware that so many boards and commissions exist, Strahorn said. It can be easy for an outsider to say something is unnecessary or wasteful, when it actually serves a vital role, he said.

“Something might seem like it’s not a big deal,” he said. “But for the people who do that for a living that might be an important function.”

And apparent duplication to outsiders isn’t wasteful if it doesn’t cost the taxpayers anything, said Bob Schmitz, chairman of the Ohio Racing Commission.

The commission doesn’t get any money from the state’s general fund and members of several advisory councils — one for quarter horses, one for thoroughbreds and one for standardbreds — are not compensated, he said.

“They’re different breeds of horses with separate disciplines,” Schmitz said. All three are made up of experts on each breed who advise the commission as a whole. The commission gets its funding from taxes on horse betting and other revenues from the industry.

In some cases boards proliferate because of other state actions. Each time a river in Ohio is designated as a wild, scenic or recreational area, an advisory council is created. There are currently 14 such areas in Ohio, and therefore 14 different advisory councils.

Some immune to review

The occupational licensing boards and dozens of others are not subject to the sunset review process.

“Whenever a board or commission is created by law, the law says it will expire unless the legislature renews it,” DeSantis said, or unless it falls under one of 26 exceptions.

Entities like the workers compensation council, the parole board, public employee retirement boards, and boards of trustees of public universities do not expire. Also any entity that can issue bonds or has bonds outstanding cannot be closed.

“It’s things like that, which have ongoing functions,” DeSantis said. “There’s no automatic or formal process of review for those.”

Politics come into play

While the sunset committee generally focused their recommendations on any agency that no longer had a clear purpose, Strahorn said there were times when political gain came into play.

“Members don’t want to be on record getting rid of a tax incentive,” he said.

There were also disagreements about which agencies were useful.

Strahorn supported the renewal of the Construction Compliance Counsel, which monitored compliance with minority contracting laws, he said. In the end the committee cut that counsel, which he said took the “teeth” out of the law it regulated.

“That was something that I would have liked to not sunset,” he said.

Sometimes officials create committees or commissions to make tough decisions instead of taking on that responsibility themselves, Koehler said. “It’s more of a thing to try and pass the buck,” he said.

He won’t know until after he’s sworn in in January which committees he’s been named to, but said he hopes the sunset review committee includes some members with experience who know the background of why certain agencies were created, but also some young blood to question and shake up the traditional thinking.

“It’s always good to stop and look and ask, why do we have these?” he said.

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