Opinion: New Levin Center academy offers Michigan better legislative oversight

Congressional hearings receive a lot of attention in the media. That makes sense, given the amount of money at stake, and the global impact of the federal government. But under the U.S. Constitution, state governments —especially state legislatures tasked with writing the law and monitoring its execution — are responsible for much of what happens in our communities. States are often the filter through which federal funding and authority flow, and they profoundly influence the quality of government and whether Americans view our system as fair and just.

The federal government spends more than all state governments combined, according to the National Academy of Public Administration. But a vast amount of that federal spending goes to the states to build and maintain our infrastructure, educate our children and keep our communities safe and healthy, or to entities like hospitals, drug makers and insurance companies that are licensed and regulated by the states.

Jim Townsend, dierector, Levin Center
Jim Townsend, dierector, Levin Center

In 2022 the federal government sent $2 trillion dollars, or 30% of the entire federal budget, to the states to carry out these vital functions, according to figures from usaspending.gov and usafacts.org. Even the financial services industry, which has recently been the subject of congressional hearings following several high-profile bank failures, is for the most part state licensed and regulated. Yet, despite the massive responsibility that state governments shoulder, many state legislatures lack the power or inclination to do the critically important work of legislative oversight — that is, making sure taxpayer dollars are wisely spent and meaningful programs are meeting their objectives.

Into this gap now steps the newly launched State Oversight Academy.

A new tool for legislators

The oversight academy is an unprecedented program for promoting bipartisan, fact-based oversight at the state level ― and educating state legislators on how to do it ― initiated by the Carl Levin Center for Oversight and Democracy at Wayne State University Law School. If the oversight academy is as successful as we hope it will be, state legislators will be more aggressive and effective in monitoring how government programs are working and taxpayer dollars are being spent, and our communities will be safer, healthier, better educated, and more equitable as a result.

Michigan State Capitol building in Lansing, Wednesday, Jan. 29, 2020.
Michigan State Capitol building in Lansing, Wednesday, Jan. 29, 2020.

In 2019, the Levin Center commissioned a study on the capacity and performance of state legislatures with respect to oversight. While "nearly all states have some capacity to conduct oversight," they vary widely "in the extent to which they use the oversight resources available to them." The study found that only 20% of the states make "high use" of that capacity and are conducting oversight as effectively as they could or should.

To get that number up and to help ensure the wise use of tax dollars and improve the effectiveness and transparency of government programs, the State Oversight Academy will collect and share with state legislators the best techniques for oversight, and identify gaps in state policy or practice that prevent state legislatures from conducting good oversight.

Good oversight is hard to find

The Commonwealth of Virginia, for example, has two well-regarded agencies that conduct audits and some investigations, but it is not clear that lawmakers actually use the information generated by these agencies. Virginia’s relatively short legislative sessions also don’t give legislators enough time to conduct good oversight, particularly since, as our study concluded, the Virginia General Assembly doesn’t appear to make "much use of interim committees [that meet between sessions] to conduct oversight."

Virginia is hardly an outlier. Numerous states, including Michigan, too often pass on the opportunity to conduct legislative oversight of the kind that holds government accountable and identifies problems before they become catastrophes. Congressional and state legislative hearings on the Flint Water Crisis, for example, occurred only after a community was poisoned. Routine state oversight into Michigan’s Emergency Management program, which in Flint and elsewhere replaced elected officials accountable to local residents with state-appointed bureaucrats, might have prevented the chain of mistakes and malfeasance that led to a public tragedy.

Our Constitution’s framers reserved much of the government’s powers, as the 10th Amendment says, "to the States, respectively, or to the people." How best to allocate those powers is an evergreen debate, but it’s indisputable that the federal government relies heavily on state governments and their local counterparts to implement its policies. Through trainings, the identification and sharing of best practices, model legislation, and the promotion of bipartisan fact-finding, the State Oversight Academy hopes to bring all 50 states into the "high use" category for oversight and by so doing help government in America make good on its promises.

Jim Townsend, a former congressional staff member and Michigan state legislator, is director of the Carl Levin Center for Oversight and Democracy.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Opinion: Levin Center academy hopes to give Michigan oversight tools