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Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Who watches the Florida legislatire? No one!

From the Sun Sentinels Editorial Board

Hypocrisy might be a bit strong, but one has to wonder why the Florida Legislature, which seemed so insistent on new measurements for teachers, government employees and state agencies, turned around and severely weakened the one agency that measures the work of lawmakers.

Republican legislative leaders now call the shots at the state Office of Program Policy Analysis & Government Accountability, the Legislature's independent research arm and watchdog agency. OPPAGA, as it is referred to in Tallahassee, is comparable to the federal General Accounting Office. Instead of relying on a dedicated funding source in the state budget, which insures autonomy, OPPAGA now depends on the leadership's discretionary spending.

Worse, the director of the agency has resigned and Gov. Rick Scott has signed legislation giving the Speaker of the House and the Senate President power to fire the next director rather than requiring a legislative vote — an obvious dealbreaker for any candidate crazy enough to want the post now.

The bureaucratic drama may sound like inside baseball, but it further undermines the impartial research that's needed to make informed decisions about public policy matters. Slashing and privatizing government services, deregulating industries, restructuring taxes and budgets are all big decisions with big consequences, and it would help if legislators had more than a lobbyist's sales pitch or ideological talking points before casting such votes.

Unfortunately, this one particular measure will hamstring the one agency legislators could rely on to provide them with impartial analysis. Imagine state auditors trying to assess whether policies or programs are achieving intended results with those very lawmakers now watching over their shoulders.

Take the case of the Florida Retirement System. Lawmakers initially said changes were needed to shore up the system, but dropped that rhetoric once auditors made it clear that the system was fiscally sound. Now that legislative leaders control the agency's discretionary spending, it puts the credibility of any analysis coming out of OPPAGA into question.

Lawmakers, mostly Republicans, have complained about OPPAGA before. Last year, they tried to eliminate the agency outright, and even now it seems that only a few state laws that require the agency's oversight is keeping it from becoming a part of Florida's history.

Given the problems Florida faces, an independent OPPAGA is more necessary than ever. But an independent OPPAGA really won't exist.

BOTTOM LINE: Lawmakers should restore OPPAGA funding and impartiality.,0,717423.story

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