If state government is going to operate more effectively and efficiently — at least, in theory, a requirement in a time of tight financial resources — then there are least three questions policymakers should ask as they review old and new programs.
1. Is there an appropriate role for state government to play?
This is a question seldom asked, at least on the record. Many policymakers simply assume if there is a problem, there should be a state response to it. The evidence is found in the 3,500 to 5,000 bills introduced every regular legislative session.
If the question was asked routinely, the answer would not automatically be yes or no, but would depend on the situation. Often, the simple act of asking the question and considering the answer would be a step in the right direction of aligning state government programs to available resources. Policymakers should reserve the right to say there is no appropriate role for state government in, for example, a battle between two business groups.
A yes would be a stronger yes that we need to organize health care for indigent Oregonians or offer financial and parenting support for single mothers and their children.
2. What is the state getting for the money it is spending?
Call this "performance-based contracting." It sounds obvious that state contracts should be based on this premise. The last CFM state lobby blog reported that performance-based contracting appears to the exception rather than the rule in state government. In fact, in social services law in Oregon, the first instance of the use of the phrase "performance-based contracting" occurred last session when the legislature passed and the governor signed Senate Bill 964, now ORS 418.180-495.
If you are a state government services provider, you should compete for a state contract on the basis of what you pledge to deliver. Then, you should keep a contract if you deliver on the pledge – or lose if you don't.
3. How will state action affect the private sector — especially individual and corporate taxpayers on whom the state depends for money to fund its operations?
Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor, wrote in the Wall Street Journal last week:
We have to make it easier for people to do the things that allow them to rise. We have to let them compete. We need to let people fight for business. We need to let people take risks. We need to let people fail. We need to let people suffer the consequences of bad decisions. And we need to let people enjoy the fruits of good decisions, even good luck.
That is what economic freedom looks like. Freedom to succeed as well as to fail, freedom to do something or nothing. People understand this. Freedom of speech, for example, means that we put up with a lot of verbal and visual garbage in order to make sure that individuals have the right to say what needs to be said, even when it is inconvenient or unpopular. We forgive the sacrifices of free speech because we value its blessings.
But when it comes to economic freedom, we are less forgiving of the cycles of growth and loss, of trial and error, and of failure and success that are part of the realities of the marketplace and life itself.
"Increasingly, we have let our elected officials abridge our own economic freedoms through the annual passage of thousands of laws and their associated regulations. We see human tragedy and we demand a regulation to prevent it. We see a criminal fraud and we demand more laws. We see an industry dying and we demand it be saved. Each time, we demand 'Do something . . . anything.'
Asking and answering question #3 would go a long way toward creating proper limits on the role of government, especially in tough economic times.
[The author, CFM partner Dave Fiskum, has listened to legislative debates for more than 30 years, tuning his ear to the questions that he believes should be asked to make government more effective.]