There’s A Task Force For That

Are you worried about property tax payments that are offset by state credits? So is the Louisiana Legislature, which is why it created a task force last year to tackle the topic.

How about feral hogs? Are those wild piggies tearing up your garden and destroying your property? Well, there's also a task force for that.

Then there’s bullying awareness, along with Medicaid fraud detection and the Lower Pearl River Basin. You guessed it — yes, all of these subject areas have legislatively-sanctioned task forces.

Lawmakers rarely meet a task force they don’t like, although it does happen on occasion. That's because the bills and resolutions that host these advisory commissions represent easy votes for representatives and senators.

For example, when the Legislature approved a resolution last month forming the Task Force on Secure Care Standards and Auditing, lawmakers were not voting to take any specific stances on the matter. Instead they took votes to seek information on everything from isolation cells to phone call privileges, as they relate to secure care facilities.

That’s how most of these task forces operate. The Legislature comes up with the criteria for how task force members should be appointed and it drafts the research directives as well. But the most important element in any such legislative instrument is the deadline — meaning when the task force has to report back to lawmakers with its findings and recommendations.

There’s no doubting it can be a helpful process, as task force studies sometimes lead to significant policy changes. Just like the criminal justice reform bills passed by the Legislature this year. Those ideas came from a government task force that explored prison and sentencing issues.

Yet task force studies can also lead to absolutely nothing, wasting the time of state workers and policy wonks alike. That was the case with the Task Force on Structural Changes in Budget and Tax Policy, which was the first high-profile task force that was created this term.

Gov. John Bel Edwards and various lawmakers had vowed to use the related findings to craft an agenda for this year’s fiscal sessions. That never happened, but fans are still hopeful that the Capitol's elite might lean on the document in 2018, or during the next special session, whichever comes first.

With that in mind, has the time come to start questioning the value of these task forces? Are there too many of them?

Here's what we know... Since February of last year the state Legislature has created the equivalent of roughly two task forces each and every month. The tally includes more than two dozen brand new task forces and a small handful of study groups that were reconvened or renewed.

Maybe lawmakers have become more curious over the past 18 months. Perhaps they’re just seeking better information to base their decisions on. Either way, the Legislature is on a hot streak.

Task forces have been created this term to look into permanency for foster children, certain trucking permits, a statewide electronic filing system for civil pleadings and ambulance transfer alternatives. There’s likewise a new task force that’s supposed to make annual assessments of state contracts.

That’s just a sampling, of course. Other task forces have been developed this term to look into installing lights on the Sunshine Bridge, adding oversight to health care licensing boards, increasing school bus safety and cracking down on defendants who don't pay child support. Plus there’s a group that will be studying the best delivery methods for Medicaid enrollees with serious mental illnesses.

Many of these efforts are noble in their intentions. Nonetheless, we’ll never hear about most them ever again. Findings will be ignored, deadlines will be blown and, possibly, a few of these task forces won't even be filled with members.

Some, though, have promise. There’s a task force considering updates to the financing formula for elementary and secondary education and another that will be revisiting Louisiana’s riverboat and gaming statutes. The popular TOPS scholarship program is going to be reviewed throughly as well by a task force during the legislative off-season.

Recommendations of any kind coming from those three task forces — on public school funding, gaming or TOPS — will surely generate a buzz in Baton Rouge. Lawmakers have tried to usher in major policy alterations on these fronts in recent years but haven't had much luck. (At least not as much luck as representatives and senators have had this term with creating task forces.)

Inside the rails of the House and Senate, lawmakers must know that their task force creations are in danger of meeting the same shared fate as those that came before. Put another way, no one needs more “shelf art,” which is a term some folks use to refer to the outdated and unused reports produced in years past.

They do little more these days than collect dust and take up space. Let’s hope that trend ends now, because new policy approaches are needed in every corner of state government.

Maybe the Legislature can establish a new task force to study how to make state-created task forces more relevant. A task force to end all task forces — that’s an idea.

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