By Ron Knecht, Nevada Business Magazine, August 2, 2023
Last month, this space listed our three biggest, most challenging public policy problems: 1) excess government spending, causing inefficiency and low government productivity; 2) proceduralism, the long public review processes, slow agency response times, and delays; and 3) overreach, inherently ineffective government policies akin to pushing instead of pulling on a string. An astute reader said it was a good summary of the key problems, but what are the solutions?
State and local overspending can be addressed by constitutional limits on public spending, like Colorado’s 1992 Taxpayers’ Bill of Rights. Such efforts raise questions concerning the funds covered (for example, federal grants versus state taxes), maintenance of necessary reserve funds, disposal of excess revenues collected by existing taxes, and other technical matters. These reforms can be passed only with great difficulty. As a legislator in 2003, I proposed one, but Democrats denied it even a hearing. State and local measures can be designed and implemented soundly to work on a sustained basis. However, passing similar federal constitutional amendments seems very unlikely. Statutes to limit federal taxes, revenues and spending are complex and very difficult to pass; even if passed, they can be repealed by future Congresses, as constitutional amendments cannot.
Philip K. Howard has also risen to the challenge of offering solutions in his latest book, Not Accountable: Rethinking the Constitutionality of Public Employee Unions. For state and local jurisdictions, he observes that the federal constitution requires that those elected officials retain their authority to fulfill their governing responsibilities. Namely, the Guarantee Clause in Article IV provides states must have a Republican form of government; that requires governing power to be exercised by officials accountable to voters. The effective capture of those officials and governments by public employee unions can be seen as a violation of the Guarantee Clause. At all three levels, he observes, the executive branches must regain the powers they have lost to public employee unions to provide public services effectively and implement legislative policies and goals. Finally, also at all three levels, public employee political activity raises constitutional issues of first impression regarding conflicts between union political activity and the fiduciary duties of those employees.
Howard argues public employee unions have disabled democratic governance in five principal ways. Specifically, they have:
“1) Severed the links of accountability; 2) Rendered government substantially unmanageable with detailed rules and veto powers; 3) Made government unaffordable with opaque benefits and compensation manipulations; 4) Changed public policies to the harm of the public good; and, 5) Entrenched these abuses, and made reform practically impossible, through organized political power.”
Solutions to proceduralism require legislation constraining the excesses of regulatory agencies and shortening review and action processes, and eliminating delays; maybe constitutional amendments can also be used. First, greatly tighten time frames for reviews and public actions. Another essential reform is to put some spank behind freedom of information requests and delays by bureaucrats and public agencies by making the public employees, officials and agencies themselves subject to penalties when they do not perform timely, in good faith and effectively.
A major reform regulatory agencies at state and local levels need is to require them to verify through rigorous economic analysis that their proposed regulations are socially cost-effective at discount rates equal to costs of capital in private markets. Such cost-benefit analysis is already required at the federal level for major matters, but bureaucrats often try to frustrate the requirement with ridiculous cost and benefit estimates and artificially low discount rates. Making these analyses subject to verification by an independent agency with a strong charge to be extremely skeptical of the submissions should also be required.
Stopping government overreach in missions, goals and legislative and executive initiatives is much more difficult. I know of no legislative or constitutional measures readily applicable. Electing better officials? Sure. Or maybe state constitutional measures similar to federal Articles I and II, limiting legislative and executive powers.
Ron Knecht is Senior Policy Fellow with Nevada Policy Research Institute.