Out of left field on May 4, the legislature’s bipartisan efficiency committee, Program Review & Investigations, took a direct hit of 50 percent of its personnel in the negotiated budget.

The committee staff was not previously targeted by the Democratic, Republican, or governor’s proposed budget cut lists — the evisceration appeared overnight.

If this cut stands, the committee’s analytical staff, who recommended $400 million in budget savings for the state’s Commission on Enhancing Agency Outcomes in 2009-10, and was assigned to find at least $53 million in budget lapses in Fiscal Years 10-11, will be severely crippled and their institutional expertise destroyed.

How does silencing the state’s efficiency experts help the state adjust to less revenues and a leaner government? And why is this cut far more extensive than other line item reductions?

Program Review and Investigation (PRI) staff rose to the challenge of finding waste in government in the last budget crisis. In 2009, after the Great Recession hit personal incomes and state revenues hard, the legislature assigned the committee analysts the duty of scrutinizing current programs and recommending savings.

According to the non-partisan Office of Fiscal Analysis, PRI staff came up with a long list of savings, including buying prescription drugs through a New England purchasing pool ($6. 7 million per year for the first two years), rebalancing nursing home to home care ($18 million and $34 million), Medicaid drug purchasing changes ($64.8 million and $71.2 million) and direct deposit of payments ($28,500 and $321,000), which became useful adjustments to the FY 10-11 budget.

The legislature gave PRI a savings target to meet in FY 2010 and 2011, and they far surpassed it. Now, for the sake of saving $750,000, the state is destroying the very committee that saved taxpayers $89.5 million in FY 2010 and $111.9 million in 2011. How could anyone think this a logical decision?

The more likely explanation is that at least one of the negotiators wanted to eliminate the committee and seized the opportunity to end the scrutiny of state agencies and programs. Program Review and Investigations has been diligently critiquing state government since 1972.

In recent years, PRI uncovered problems at the state’s Veteran’s Hospital, evaluated the most effective ways to retrain older workers, compared patient outcomes in state vs. private institutions, recommended changes in higher education and looked at the best way to deploy state police. Their reports are data-driven and the committee is not afraid to shine a light on inefficiency. That may be why someone wants to turn out their spotlight when the budget comes to a vote.

Mary Mushinsky is State Representative from the 85th District and ranking member of the Program Review and Investigations Committee.

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