New Senate Leader Disbands Internal Government Watchdog

Tuesday, December 16, 2014
State Senate Pro Tem Kevin de León

New state Senate leader Kevin de León wasted little time in scrapping a government watchdog office created in 2008 by his predecessor, Darrell Steinberg, that perhaps nipped at a few too many sensitive extremities.

The Sacramento Bee reported last week that the state Senate Office of Oversight and Outcomes (SOOO) won’t be writing reports about state government that were often the basis for official investigations. The office was tiny—three investigators, a legislative aide and a director—but they turned out an impressive body of work.

The office wrote 27 reports in its first five years (pdf). They examined a broad range of subjects and they did it with former journalists, instead of more traditional government investigators. The results were very readable, well-documented reports that showed more than a little heart.

DMV Shifts into Reverse” (pdf), in 2009, examined how furloughs at the Department of Motor Vehicles eliminated a bunch of services but didn’t save any money.

Gun-Toting Auditors and Attorneys” (pdf), in 2010, wondered in a subhead, “Does the Inspector General Need 105 Armed Peace Officers?” The answer was only if the goal was to change their official classification to qualify them for higher pension benefits.

Bleeding Cash” (pdf), in 2011, explored the virtues of 10 tax breaks that cost California $6.3 billion in taxes over a decade by allowing corporations to operate through subsidiaries in tax havens. The report, done at the behest of Democratic Senator Lois Wolk, listed corporations who saved money and took advantage of the tax breaks.         

Good Deeds Punished” (pdf), in 2011, illuminated a policy of the California Housing Finance Agency (CalHFA) of foreclosing on homeowners who moved out but were successfully renting their property.

Food Fight” (pdf), in 2013, documented school districts taking $170 million out of funds meant to feed the poorest students and using them for far different purposes.

Crash Course” (pdf), in 2013, described how the State Controller’s screwed up a $373 million payroll system by failing to heed early warnings.

“Department of Fair Employment and Housing” (pdf), in 2013 reported that state government had a “secret policy” of allowing the governor to derail any discrimination case pursued against a state or local public agency and said it was just one of the ways California landmark civil rights agency has been crippled over time.  

Ah, good times. But now that newspapers and other media barely have the resources to cover state government, how inconvenient and a tad embarrassing is to have remnants of the fifth estate roaming around the halls of the Capitol in Sacramento making pests of themselves? 

The Bee said that Steinberg did not have bitter words about De León’s decision to dismantle the office. Its funding was tied directly to the senator’s office and lawmakers like to set their own budgets. Steinberg said it was his assumption that the kind of investigations the Office of Oversight and Outcomes did will be conducted in another format by someone.

–Ken Broder


To Learn More:

De León Eliminates Government Oversight Office (by Laurel Rosenhall, Sacramento Bee)

State Oversight Office Says Landmark Civil Rights Agency is Crippled (by Ken Broder, AllGov California)

The First Five Years (Senate Office of Oversight and Outcomes) (pdf)

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