Look Before You Leap — Questions on the $175 Million DHS gap.

Governor Kulongoski’s Department of Human Service recently announced that it would fall $170 million short for the biennium even though the biennium still has three fourths of its time left. This startling revelation is designed to stampede the legislature into pumping more money into the most poorly run program in the state. Before the echoes had faded from this announcement there were calls from the professional alarmists for a special session to deal with this new “crises.”

But before we all jump off the bridge, some serious questions need to be asked about this “crises.” And it appears that, once again, that task falls to Rep. Dennis Richardson (R-Central Point). The unassuming, but fearless, Richardson has become one of the legislature’s premier fiscal watchdogs. In this instance, however, Rep. Richardson will need all of his skills as a lawyer to cut through the obfuscating, dilly-dallying, and political correctness that pervades DHS.Already Richardson has asked the first and fundamental question. What changed between now and the time that the legislature adopted the DHS budget? And the answer is – DHS has a new projection. Not actual experience but a new projection. In other words, DHS is not suffering a shortfall based on current experience but rather it has used a new set of “assumptions” to project a new “shortfall.” In fact, according to Richardson, it appears that DHS is experiencing a run rate of only 40% of its new “projected shortfall.”

To put it in the simplest terms, it would be like me saying on July 1 of 2005 that I was going to spend $240,000 over the next two years ($10,000 per month for 24 months) and then six months later declaring that it looked like I was going to spend $300,000 over the twenty-four months ($12,500 per month for 24 months) even though I was actually only spending $7,500 per month to date.

So what has really changed? Well despite the Oregonian blaming the baby boomers, and the DHS blaming the lack of living wage jobs, the real answer might be more in line with the fact that DHS has a new director and he wants some wiggle room so that he doesn’t fail. It might be because DHS is going to have to pay a 24% premium on its bloated payroll to fund PERS instead of the anticipated 16-18%. It might be a whole lot of things or it might just be nothing but smoke and mirrors.

But Rep. Richardson is doing it the right way. There will be public hearings next week and Richardson is preparing for some tough questioning of DHS and its new director. Not that Dennis needs my help but here are some questions, in addition to the ones relating to the “projections,” that he should ask as he plumbs the depths of this real or manufactured crisis.

1. How many dollars are being spent on services to illegal aliens? The Kulongoski administration, like the Kitzhaber administration before it, simply can’t bring itself to ask this question. Data is not kept on the number of illegal aliens. There is no effective screening of or verifying applicants that is even attempted let alone implemented. The most efficient method and one used by the State of Washington is to require a Social Security number and then check it against the Social Security Administration’s data base to ensure that the applicant and the number identify the same person. (And don’t let them pull that old baloney about “federal mandates” – if we don’t have the information we can’t change the “mandates.”)

2. How many dollars are being spent on services to persons who do not qualify financially for such services? We were treated during the legislative session to evidence from an audit that suggested that DHS employees routinely ignored these criteria or seldom verified the information given to them by applicants. If welfare cheats know that they won’t be investigated, they will flock to the services. (And before the handwringers turn blue in the face, note I said welfare cheats, which by definition means they are cheating and, therefore, does not include those entitled to welfare payments.)

3. How many more dollars are being spent on salaries and benefits (including increases for PERS and healthcare benefits) than were projected in the budgets presented to the legislature?

4. What efforts have been undertaken, and the results of those efforts, to ferret out and eliminate the gross abuses previously identified by auditors and the legislative committees? An example is the office space that sat unused but rented by DHS for years.

And the universal question, just when is it that government is going to spend our money efficiently before it asks for ever more to cover its mistakes?