The State Oversight Academy’s blog, State Oversight Matters, tackles the importance of congressional oversight; practical matters in conducting investigations, holding effective public hearings, and working together to find the facts; and specific topics requiring oversight such as appropriations, corrections, foster care, and more.
The end of summer is, in general, a quiet period for the nation’s state legislatures. Today, at the end of August, legislatures in more than half of the states have adjourned until next year unless a special session is called. Even in full-time institutions, schedules have slowed as legislators spend more time in their districts. From the Congress’ summer in-district work period to the long state legislative interim – the time when a part-time legislature is not in session – summer months without the rigors of regular session and committee schedules have long been a part of the American legislative tradition. They date back to a time when a substantial proportion of legislators had agricultural responsibilities, and before modern infrastructure cut down on travel time to state capitals.
A lot has changed since then. Society has become more complex, and governing has grown with it. Typically, the legislature hands off much of the work of implementing policy to the executive branch – the agencies and departments that build infrastructure, regulate industry, look after the vulnerable, and much more. Their responsibility for implementing the legislative branch’s policy never stops. At the same time, the legislature has a special, year-round responsibility to make sure the executive branch faithfully implements the law and to assess the efficacy of the underlying policy. That is oversight. Oversight is a unique right and duty for the legislative branch as a coequal branch of government – one that goes on all year.
A quieter schedule can give legislators and staff time to work on more involved and proactive oversight projects. Those projects, in turn, can set the stage for broader legislative fixes or budgetary tweaks when the full legislature comes back into session. Oversight topics needing a more comprehensive review can include child welfare services, prison operations, and infrastructure priorities. Conducting oversight on topics like these during the interim helps state legislators keep an eye on performance and prepare for an upcoming session when schedules tighten. In the world of oversight, the interim can be just as important as the height of a legislative session.
Every legislative institution has its own way of handling oversight during the interim. The Levin Center’s most recent Oversight Overview video explores the particulars of interim oversight committees working with child welfare in Alabama, Colorado, and Utah. In all three states, several specialized legislative interim oversight committees track a variety of issues, from nuclear energy to administrative rule review.
In West Virginia, where the Legislature’s regular session lasts only from January to March, a robust system of interim committees conducts most of the state’s oversight work during the rest of the year. While certain committees focus on a specific issue area such as education or transportation, a joint Commission on Special Investigations has broad authority and a full investigative staff. All interim committees have a mandate to return a report with their findings to the whole Legislature. The effect of this is that, while the House and Senate may be out of session, the legislature still plays its part as a coequal branch of government all year. While West Virginia’s regular session ended in March, legislators there have continued studying issues like corrections staffing and delays in issuing death certificates.
In Louisiana, standing committees – not just those focused specifically on oversight – have broad authority to conduct most of their oversight operations during the interim. They can establish subcommittees, hold hearings, review proposed administrative rules, conduct investigations, and more. At the same time, the Legislative Audit Advisory Council uses its time in the interim to review reports from the state legislative auditor, as they did in July at a hearing concerning the Governor’s Office of Elderly Affairs. Aside from just freeing up committee time during the busy session, handling this oversight work during the interim ensures that legislators and staff have the time they need to conduct detailed investigations and prepare thoughtful policy in response. Their system contributes to meaningful, year-round oversight and helps the Legislature hit the ground running during their two-month regular session.
Even though it may seem like a quiet time of year in terms of legislation, good oversight work never stops. Across America, committees keep meeting, auditors keep auditing, and investigators keep investigating. It has been a busy summer at the Levin Center, too. Our State Legislative Oversight Wiki has been revamped with version 2.0, with more information than ever. It is a great tool to learn about oversight operations across the country, and you can even provide updates about how your state’s legislative institutions keep busy with oversight during the summer.
Today, the State Oversight Academy is excited to launch a brand-new version of the State Legislative Oversight Wiki. Wiki 2.0 includes added information on committees with jurisdictional oversight authority, as well as agency reports by topic from across the United States. The fresh interface is easier to navigate and allows researchers, legislative staff, and the public to search by topic, keyword, and state.
Whether you are a researcher looking for committees with jurisdictional oversight authority in Guam or a legislator searching for reports on corrections from across the nation, you will find it – and a whole lot more – on Wiki 2.0.
For every state, territory, and the District of Columbia, Wiki 2.0 includes basic information on the structure of the legislative branch and on committees with oversight and fiscal authority, as well as details on oversight partners like auditors and inspectors general, ombudsmen, and research agencies. A separate section for agencies and reports displays agencies by function (such as auditors and comptrollers), as well reports by subject area (e.g., elections and social services).
With a new keyword search tool, everything is easier to find in Wiki 2.0. A dropdown menu makes it possible to search for resources in just one state or across the country. Using “quotation marks” allows for narrowing a search to a precise phrase. For example, searching House Fiscal Agency would display any result including House or Fiscal or Agency, but searching “House Fiscal Agency” displays only Michigan’s House Fiscal Agency.
Sharing a direct link to a section is easier in SOWIKI 2.0. Click the hash mark (#) next to any section header to copy a direct link to some featured reports from the Louisiana Office of the Inspector General or general information on Florida’s term limits.
Most important of all, Wiki 2.0 is a collaborative effort. You (yes, you!) can help us keep the State Legislative Oversight Wiki up-to-date and share your ideas for improvement. On every page you will find an area to send updates or just share your thoughts. You can also use the green chat button in the lower right-hand corner to send questions or comments. We are excited to hear from you!
Wiki 2.0 is just the State Oversight Academy’s latest tool to compile detailed information about oversight across the country in one unified resource. Building on the Levin Center for Oversight and Democracy’s comprehensive 2019 study on oversight across the states, the Wiki’s flexible format and the ability for anyone to submit updates will help keep information on the dynamic world of legislative oversight up-to-date and make it a useful tool for years to come.
State legislatures across the country use their fiscal and policy-making leverage to conduct oversight on state prison operations. Unlike the rules governing other areas of state government, state corrections law often grants prison officials a significant degree of discretion to decide what happens and what is funded inside prison walls. To keep track of these highly variable operations, state legislatures have adopted a number of practices, including requiring agency reports, forming joint legislative committees to conduct oversight, and establishing expert commissions to gather and review data about prison performance.
Some legislative committees implement recommendations developed by an appointed commission of professionals, while others operate independently as a committee or member office. This blog explores the joint legislative committees on prison operations in Colorado and Kansas.
This table reflects the information available on the committee or commission websites or hearing recordings on YouTube from the state legislature.
- Legislative Oversight Committee Concerning Colorado Jail Standards
- Colorado Jail Standards Commission
- Kansas Joint Committee on Corrections and Juvenile Justice Oversight
Colorado: Colorado’s commission appears to be stocked with experts. The commission’s adopted topics and the corresponding deadline for recommendations appears to be an effective planning framework. The commission releases recommendations on topics such as jail staffing, security, and visitation every three months. The last crop of commission recommendations is scheduled for August 2023 followed by the full committee report in November. These topics could inspire other state legislatures to pursue investigations in their own state, or even adopt Colorado’s ambitious timeline approach for topics and recommendation delivery. The commission’s operating procedures are listed below.
Kansas: The committee heard testimony from citizens and experts representing interest groups. The committee record also suggests that the committee heard from a wide range of viewpoints. For example, reproduced below is an excerpt from the written testimony from a Kansas resident in which he shares concerns about prison operations after working as a corrections officer for 20 years. Personal letters like this are in included in the record along with issue statements from interest groups.
Based on this review, it’s clear that lawmakers in Colorado and Kansas take seriously the job of tracking prison operations within their jurisdictions. Each state might benefit from considering the practices of the other. Kansas, for example, might want to form a commission on prison operations or make a topics timeline to plan out the fact-finding within their own committee. Colorado might consider seeking more public and interest group input on the committee’s operations, recording commission and committee meetings and uploading those recordings to YouTube, and holding committee hearings every few months to share and discuss the recommendations developed by the commission. Any state legislature should consider combining Colorado’s expert recommendations and planning with the hearing and testimony structure from Kansas when preparing to conduct oversight on state prison operations.
The Levin Center’s State Oversight Academy exists to help state legislatures working to conduct fact-finding. From prison operations to monitoring implementation of any government program, the Levin Center supports legislatures in fulfilling their duty to serve as the “eyes and voice of the people.” If you enjoyed this blog, please consider subscribing to the State Oversight Academy newsletter at https://www.levin-center.org/state-oversight-academy/. If you are a state legislator, consider attending the Levin Center’s upcoming virtual MasterClass. State legislators from across the country join oversight experts to build a response to a hypothetical prison operations scandal. Link to RSVP: https://www.levin-center.org/event/oversight-of-prison-operations-an-interactive-masterclass/.
For questions or comments, message Ben Eikey at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This month, the State Oversight Academy launches a new video series called Oversight Overview that explores how state legislatures across the nation are performing oversight of a particular issue. Bipartisan, fact-based oversight is the duty of state legislatures, and although factors such as political climate, term limits, and rotating committee assignments can make it difficult to achieve, there are smaller steps that can improve this legislative function. Ensuring that oversight committees are joint and bipartisan, have well-defined jurisdictions and authorities, and promote transparency will help ensure that investigations focus on finding facts and solving problems rather than political posturing.
Our first Oversight Overview explores Medicaid oversight, traveling to four statehouses – Iowa, Louisiana, North Carolina, and Ohio. You can watch the video here.
The Iowa Joint Health Policy Oversight Committee was established in 2015 to “[p]rovide continuing oversight for Medicaid managed care, ensure effective and efficient administration of the program, address stakeholder concerns, monitor program costs and expenditures, and make recommendations to the General Assembly.” It has met at least once/year since its creation, usually taking testimony from the Department of Human Services, Department of Human Rights, Legislative Services Agency, and Department of Public Health.
At 60% Republican, the committee’s membership is more bipartisan than the full General Assembly, which is 65.3% Republican. However, its jurisdiction is not well-defined, and the Iowa General Assembly does not specify committee oversight authorities in its rules. The committee’s website includes a good deal of information, including membership; meeting schedules, agendas, minutes, and archived video; and public comments, presentations, and other committee documents.
The Louisiana Joint Medicaid Oversight Committee was established in 2020 so that the assigned legislators could learn the complexities of the program, which makes up almost half of the state’s budget, and improve oversight. The jurisdiction is well-defined, instructing the authority to “monitor, review, and make recommendations,” “[r]eview the compliance of the Louisiana Department of Health,” and “[p]lan, advertise, organize, and conduct forums, conferences, and other meetings, in which representatives of state agencies and other individuals with expertise in the state Medicaid program may participate, to increase knowledge and understanding of and to develop and propose improvements to the state Medicaid program.” The committee can hold hearings, “require the production of books and records,” and “may call upon the staffs of any department, agency, or official of the state…for data and assistance.”
The committee, which is 66.7% Republican, is slightly more bipartisan than the full legislature, at 68.1% Republican. Though the jurisdiction and authority are clear, transparency is lacking – only membership is listed on the committee’s website.
North Carolina’s Joint Legislative Oversight Committee on Medicaid and NC Health Care is responsible for examining “budgeting, financing, administration, and operational issues related” to the programs. The committee gain can “access to any paper or document and may compel the attendance of any State official or employee before the Committee or secure any evidence” and can also issue subpoenas. It receives reports from the Department of Health and Human Services throughout the session, and DHHS is required to send a copy of any report to the General Assembly or committee to the cochairs of the Medicaid Oversight Committee.
The committee’s website promotes transparency by hosting a wealth of information, including membership, bills in committee, reports to the General Assembly, reports to the committee, meeting agendas and presentations, and subcommittee information. However, the committee is more partisan (80% Republican) than the full General Assembly, which is 60% Republican.
Finally, the Ohio General Assembly established the Joint Medicaid Oversight Committee in 2014 to continuously oversee the state’s Medicaid program. The committee’s responsibilities include ensuring Medicaid compliance aligns with legislative objectives, assessing the long-term effects of legislation on Medicaid, and aiding in controlling spending growth while enhancing the quality of care and health outcomes for Medicaid beneficiaries in the state. Apart from possessing subpoena power, the committee and its staff are authorized to conduct unannounced inspections of Medicaid offices within state and local governments. It has met about once per month since its establishment, requiring regular reports from the Department of Medicaid on issues including access barriers, program participation, and the needs of low-income pregnant women and children. The State Auditor provides reports to the committee upon request.
The committee has produced multiple reports of its own, which are available on its website, along with its membership and meeting dates, notices, minutes, and related materials. With a 60% Republican composition, the committee demonstrates greater bipartisanship compared to the entire General Assembly, where Republicans make up 70% of the membership.
These four Medicaid oversight committees all possess some of the traits that enhance effective, fact-based oversight, but there is room for improvement. Increasing bipartisanship and transparency, defining a clear jurisdiction, and prescribing appropriate investigatory powers promotes better oversight, not just of Medicaid, but all issues facing legislative bodies.
Is your committee practicing effective, fact-based oversight? The State Oversight Academy is happy to assess or assist! Contact us today.
Download the video’s accompanying document here.
Government is expansive and oversight authority rests in the legislature. It can be difficult to know where to start. Some oversight, such as budgetary and contract issues, is routine, but investigations can spring from anywhere you find a concern. Here are a few places you might find your next oversight investigation:
- Committee jurisdiction. The rules of your legislature will outline the responsibilities and authorities your committee has to conduct oversight. In California, all standing committees (except the Committee on Rules) “have and may exercise all the rights, duties, and powers conferred upon investigating committees” in their jurisdiction (H.R. 2, 11.5-c). If your state allows you similar authority, this is a great opportunity to conduct general oversight of agencies and look for issues that exist in your committee’s jurisdiction.
- Leadership concerns. Likely, your party leaders will have oversight priorities they want you to address. Share your oversight ideas with leadership, and together develop an oversight plan that reflects the three C’s: conscience, constituents, and caucus. In that order.
- Scandals, events, news, problems. Sometimes, an event grabs public attention and your constituents demand answers. These problems can come from the public or private sector. Some examples include:
- In October 2022, a video of two children being violently removed from their homes in Santa Cruz, California by Assisted Interventions, Inc. went viral. Santa Cruz County called on the California Legislature to provide regulations and oversight of the transportation companies.
- Arizona’s Joint Legislative Oversight Committee on the Department of Child Safety met in September 2022 following a murder at a Phoenix group home.
- Agencies/reports. The Legislature doesn’t conduct oversight in a vacuum. There are many government agencies doing their own oversight, such as inspectors general and state auditors. Sometimes, an agency will release a report that will require further oversight or legislative action on your part. For example, last year in California, the State Auditor and Little Hoover Commission released reports detailing the racial disparities of the system meant to provide services to people with developmental disabilities, bringing it to the attention of the State Assembly.
- Another example is from Michigan. The Auditor General released a report on the performance of the Grand Rapids Home for Veterans. This led to legislative committee hearings and increased scrutiny on veteran home operations in Grand Rapids and across the state.
- Constituents. If there is a problem in your district, the citizens may very well be the first to tell you! It was the residents of Flint, Michigan, who sounded the alarm on the water crisis just weeks after their water source was switched from the Detroit River to the Flint River in 2014.
- Whistleblowers, advocacy groups. We’ve seen plenty of whistleblowers testify before Congress recently, particularly from social media companies, but legislatures are even more likely to interact with advocacy groups. Sometimes, they will work with you, like these legislators and advocacy groups in Washington trying to make it easier for non-English speakers to easily access interpreter services when testifying before committees. Other times, you may be in disagreement – for example, the nonprofit Babe Vote is currently suing the state of Idaho for removing student IDs as accepted identification at election polls, which it argues will decrease voter turnout and disproportionately affect low-income students. Either way, the issues whistleblowers and advocacy groups bring to your attention present opportunities for oversight.
- Lawsuits. There are instances when lawsuits show us that our laws aren’t working as they should. A glaring example comes from Utah, where 94 women sued their OB-GYN for sexual assault. The case was dismissed because the Utah law was interpreted to mean that sexual assaults by health care providers fell under “health care” and thus had to be filed as state medical malpractice. Legislators were appropriately outraged by the dismissal and took action to change the law.
- Personal experience. You probably ran for office because you recognized that there was at least one problem in society. Use your oversight authority to get to the bottom of the issue and find a solution!
- Legislator concerns. Just as you ran for office because you identified a problem you wanted to fix, so did all your colleagues. Find out what issues they are worried about and see if it inspires any ideas for investigations – plus, it doesn’t hurt to start with an ally!
- Oversight plan, long-term vision. If you are chairing an oversight committee, it is a good idea to create an oversight agenda for the legislative term. This keeps your routine oversight matters, such as compliance and budgetary issues, on track. You’ll have unforeseen circumstances that require your attention, of course, but you’ll be much better prepared to juggle investigations when the need arises! If you need some tips on creating an oversight agenda, you can check out the slides from the Levin Center’s masterclass, “Crafting Your State Oversight Agenda for the Coming Legislative Term,” or contact the State Oversight Academy for help!
1. To find the facts on challenges facing your state.
You’ve been elected to serve your constituents and your state, but first, you need to understand the facts. Campaigns rely on broad statements – “I’ll cut taxes!” or “I’ll bring manufacturing jobs back!” – but legislating is in the details. If you want to cut taxes, you need to understand why taxes are high. Where are the taxes going? Are there alternatives for financing the services supported by these tax revenues? Are these revenues being wasted or misused? What impact might a revenue reduction have on the state’s fiscal condition? To answer these questions and to best serve in your elected capacity, you need to utilize your oversight powers.
2. To leverage the power of your office and the legislature.
Your constituents gave you power to act on their behalf, and as an elected official, your name (and title) holds sway. Use it! Pick up the phone and start getting answers – people answer the phone when a state legislator is calling. Ask questions, request documents, and start putting the puzzle pieces together. If you serve on a committee with the jurisdiction to address the issue, start an investigation! If not, try to find a colleague on the appropriate committee who is willing to help.
Committees have additional powers for fact-finding. If you suspect a contractor is defrauding an agency, thus raising the cost of government, it will be easier to investigate if you have the resources of a full committee or subcommittee rather than trying to do it on your own.
3. To interact with legislators on the other side of the aisle.
This might not be the most intuitive reason to do oversight, but it could be the most important. No matter what’s on your legislative wish list, you are not going to get much of it accomplished if you can’t work with those holding a viewpoint different from your own.
Establishing a good relationship with members of all parties is an important part of lawmaking, and of oversight. Oversight requires an agreement to one set of facts, and to follow those facts wherever they lead your investigation. If you start an investigation with that one understanding, you may find yourself able to reach consensus more easily when other issues arise. You will need this consensus if the contractor refuses your request to review its books and you want the committee to further the inquiry.
4. To improve government performance: transparency, legislation, governance.
Whether you’re a Republican or Democrat, a proponent of big government or small, we all agree that government should work better – we just may not agree on how to make that happen. So, where do we start? That’s right – OVERSIGHT! We can’t expect to improve government functions if we don’t first pinpoint the pitfalls.
When you’re attempting to make change, it is important that citizens understand what you are doing, how you plan to do it, and why it should be done. Remember, you would not be in a position to make change if not for them! Be transparent from the very beginning of your oversight investigation and throughout the process – from audit to action! – so the public and your colleagues can see clearly how you identified the problem and then acted to solve it.
If, after your oversight investigation is complete, you’ve found that the problem needs to be addressed through legislation (perhaps you need to strengthen the requirements by which contractors report their accounting of taxpayer dollars), consider allowing time for public comment, or the option to submit written statements on your website. A legislature is the People’s House, and it’s important to hear from the people – it may also increase the public’s trust in you.
5. Because you came to the state legislature with a vision.
You worked hard to get to this place – why? Everyone’s answer is different, but there is probably at least one broad, common theme: you want to help people. Maybe you saw a specific problem affecting your community and decided you wanted to do something about it, or maybe you just knew you had the skills to make a difference where it was needed. Either way, you wanted to move us toward a more perfect union. It’s a big goal, but it’s manageable if you take it one step at a time. Start by identifying your problem, investigating it, and go from there.
And, if you have any questions or run into any trouble throughout your oversight pursuits, the State Oversight Academy is here to help!