A long time ago in a galaxy far away …
No. Let’s leave “Star Wars” out of this.
But there was a time — and it does seem long ago — when the Mississippi Legislature enacted a bevy of “good government” initiatives to help it do its job better.
One of those years was 1973. Lawmakers created something called the Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review Committee.
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There were to be seven appointees from the House and seven from the Senate. More significantly, the committee, which quickly became known as PEER, was to have a paid, professional staff working year-round.
While all House and Senate committees at the federal level have permanent staff to actually research and report findings, this was rare for Mississippi’s much leaner government.
PEER was to be different.
PEER was to be bipartisan.
PEER’s objective job was to “close the loop.”
Lawmakers correctly sensed that in the normal course of events, the citizenry plops its problems on the Capitol steps and expects lawmakers to enact fixes. Fix roads, fix prisons, fix crime, fix health care, fix poverty, fix education.
Cynics say otherwise, but the intent of legislation, more often than not, is to bring about solutions or at least improvements.
As a made-up example, let’s say the Legislature believes it will be more efficient to provide cell phones to state troopers than to reimburse troopers for official use of their private phones. Let’s say a change is made in good faith — troopers are provided phones — and let’s say PEER is assigned to conduct a two-year review. (The committee can only investigate what the Legislature orders it to investigate.)
Let’s say after PEER’s report says the change isn’t working, the state is spending twice as much and troopers report poor service.
Based on the update, the Legislature could reverse itself or at least know what was going on.
Without review, the Legislature would go on its merry way, never knowing whether a problem had been fixed or whether its cell phone decision had actually created more difficulty and expense.
That happens, you know. Good intentions, terrible results.
Nicely, the 1973 Legislature also ordained that PEER reports would be public. They are all on the Internet at www.peer.state.ms.us. All people, including lawmakers, can review the effects of changes made in state policy or practices; determine whether a fix is working.
See? Back then legislative leaders saw the wisdom of following up, to see if changes were having the desired results. In media coverage, PEER is often called the state’s “legislative watchdog.”
So, what’s happened?
If the “Star Wars” analogy were continued, today’s Darth Vader is Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves.
The Clarion-Ledger reported last week that Reeves had not appointed Senate representatives to the PEER, which is his job to do.
That puts the brakes on committee work because, remember, the committee has to sign off on reports. No committee, no reports. The most recent one is dated last December.
This year is the first year of a new legislative term and House Speaker Philip Gunn made his appointments back in April. Reeves was not available last week, but The Clarion-Ledger reported that a spokesman said Reeves would probably name his appointees soon. James A. Barber, PEER executive director, told the newspaper, “I don’t really have an explanation to provide you,” and suggested following up with “another source.”
State elected officials, usually a close-knit group, have gone on record in other contexts accusing Reeves of taking sometimes discrete, sometimes very open steps toward gaining more authority in the lieutenant governor’s office, which, arguably, is already the most powerful in state government. The “great scrape” in which agency heads’ ability to allocate funds under their control was wrested away this spring is one example.
The failure to (or choice not to) make PEER appointments takes on the same aroma. If there’s no one to check on the whether legislative solutions are working, then the train chugs merrily along as if every enactment is having wonderful results.
Here’s the thing, though: Central to every public statement by every conservative candidate — and Reeves is a conservative’s conservative — is a plea or demand for more government accountability, more government efficiency. And that, as we circle back, is the only possible reason to have a PEER review in the first place. PEER adds public accountability. PEER adds efficiency.
Perhaps Reeves’ appointments will quickly be made and PEER will get back to reviewing the consequences of legislative actions, as directed. Hope so. PEER may not be a priority for Reeves, but it should be.
Charlie Mitchell is a Mississippi journalist. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.