After top Republican state lawmakers eliminated the legislature’s in-house watchdog agency, the Program Evaluation Division, in February Joe Coletti, then a senior fellow at the John Locke Foundation lauded the decision. In a Feb. 22, 2021, article that appeared on the conservative think tank’s website, he opined that a partisan staff might be more nimble in performing the oversight function and making recommendations to increase government efficiency.
“Closing PED and staffing up the Joint Legislative Commission on Government Operations with partisan staff for both the majority and minority parties might be the reform needed to address three shortcomings of PED since it began in 2008,” Coletti concluded.
Now Coletti himself is doing exactly what he had envisioned. He’s taking the helm on the House side of a new evaluation team within the Joint Legislative Commission on Government Operations. Also known as Gov Ops, the commission is chaired by House Speaker Tim Moore and Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger. The composition of Gov Ops is more than 70% Republican, or 34 of 44 members.
The Program Evaluation Division was created in 2007 by the General Assembly to monitor public spending and services. Its statutory mission was to “evaluate whether public services were delivered in an effective and efficient manner and in accordance with the law.” It employed a staff of 14. PED served as a nonpartisan service arm of the legislature. It and conducted evaluations at the request of members of the Joint Legislative Program Evaluation Oversight Committee. According to its website, the Oversight Committee has not met this year.
In his February John Locke Foundation article, Coletti identified what he said were three shortcomings of PED:
- it only looked into programs at the request of the oversight committee
- its recommendations became law only with bipartisan support
- its “evaluations could not provide strategic guidance.”
Sen. Jay Chaudhuri, a Wake County Democrat, told Policy Watch that PED’s work had helped the state save millions of taxpayer dollars.
“The decision by the Republican leadership to do away with the Program Evaluation Division came as a surprise,” said Chaudhuri. “And it has also become clear that the Republican leadership wants to let our so-called watchdog loose.”
Moore and Berger’s offices did not respond to Policy Watch’s repeated inquiries about the new staffing makeup, work products envisioned for the new division, or its budget.
Coletti previously served as deputy director of former Gov. Pat McCrory’s reform program, North Carolina Government Efficiency and Reform (NC GEAR). In the article, Coletti wrote that some of PED’s recommendations during the McCrory years were not acted upon until they received a push from NC GEAR.
Under Coletti, the new evaluation team within Gov Ops will be bipartisan, but its makeup highly skewed. So far, Republicans are on track to receive 12 of the 16 Gov Ops oversight staff positions.
The newly constituted group “will focus heavily on oversight and return on state taxpayer investment,” according to a job posting for a partisan Gov Ops analyst position published by Coletti.
The majority party ultimately sets the tone for bipartisanship and transparency. Coletti did not respond to emails from Policy Watch about how he planned to staff and lead the new evaluation team. The House will assign seven staff members to the team, five Republicans and two Democrats, according to Todd Barlow, chief of staff for House Minority Leader Rep. Robert Reives. Barlow said in an email that Reives opposes the administrative change toward a partisan staff.
Derrick Welch is now leading the Senate’s majority staff as Coletti’s counterpart, according to a press release. Welch used to be the program manager of RISE29, a “student entrepreneur” program at East Carolina University, according to his LinkedIn profile. Berger’s office is slated to add seven additional positions, while Senate Minority Leader Sen. Dan Blue will get two, his spokesperson Leslie Rudd told Policy Watch.
However, this apportionment is not proportionate to the number of Senate seats that Democrats hold. “Senator Blue’s office is asking for more equitable distribution of these new positions, based on Democrats holding 44% of the seats in the Senate,” Rudd said in an email.
Criticism for the switch
John Turcotte headed the Program Evaluation Division from the time of the program’s creation in 2007 until he retired last year, a few months before the legislature dismantled it. Prior to that, he led program evaluation divisions in Mississippi and Florida and helped create the National Legislative Program Evaluation Society.
The move to suddenly ax the bipartisan oversight program and fire its staff was effectively unprecedented, Turcotte told Policy Watch. New York’s Legislative Commission on Expenditure Review was the only other PED-equivalent to have been abolished, when that state’s legislature did so in 1992.
Turcotte said he’s worried about the gap of work left by PED’s elimination, noting that the much-needed audits of COVID relief funds have stalled.
Earlier this year, Gov Ops oversaw an investigation into the state High School Athletic Association, but nothing has come of it. “They haven’t issued a report yet, that’s all they’ve done so far — nothing,” Turcotte said. “PED… by this time we would have had seven or eight reports out on projects that they asked us to do.”
The lack of activity from the new staff can be attributed in part to transition pains, but Turcotte said he is not optimistic about the work to be completed by a partisan staff.
“Why should taxpayers pay for partisan staff whose job is to make legislators look good?” said Turcotte, who argued that PED’s work isn’t — and shouldn’t be — partisan.
Turcotte noted that PED was an agency with great power and responsibility. It had access to highly sensitive personnel information and could determine where taxpayers’ dollars should go. Hence its strict protocol for interviewing, site inspections, report drafting and auditing. Turcotte said if an agency didn’t cooperate with PED investigations it could lose funding and its credibility.
Tucotte worries that without protocols, the new partisan evaluation team will ”put together talking points using cherry-picked data for majority members who will use them when hauling in agency heads before Gov Ops for ‘gotcha’ hearings, which Berger and Moore falsely believe is legislative oversight.”
Sen. Jay Chaudhuri said the professionalism maintained by nonpartisan career employees was the key to the success of PED, which commanded the respect of General Assembly members from both parties.
“I think the decision to eliminate the program evaluation staff and close down the Program Evaluation Division and move those positions into partisan positions, really undermines our ability to pursue fact-based and objective evaluations of state agencies, both in the short term and long term,” Chaudhuri said. “I also believe that that decision will only exacerbate the political and partisan environment in the General Assembly.”
In addition, Turcotte and Chaudhuri both expressed concerns over a turn toward less transparency, as partisan staff are often not subject to the same level of scrutiny as their nonpartisan counterparts. There is no indication of a public website to showcase the organizational structure and procedures of the new evaluation team.
While no longer in existence, the PED would still get a $2.4 million appropriation in the proposed budget approved by the Senate in June (the bill has yet to be fully considered by the House).
The $2.4 million budget could fund an equivalent of 19 full-time positions, Turcotte said, more than the division’s past year’s budget of $1.9 million. If staffed with qualified personnel, the operation could mount vigorous investigations. However, if politically motivated, Turcotte warned, “this could be a dangerous, rogue two-headed outfit, going after agencies, contractors, and state/local funded entities ad hoc.”