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Time for Legislature to look at further reforms to Mississippi's 'deep state'

MAGNOLIA STATE: Washington, D.C. isn't the only place with a deep state. Photo illustration by Steve Wilson

President Donald Trump alleges that a "deep state" of employees at the intelligence and other agencies are conspiring against the president and his policies.

The ability of the administration to deal with this apparent civil service uprising is limited, since firing an individual government worker requires a herculean effort. One can think the progressive reform movement for this state of affairs, a reform that aimed at curbing the spoils system model of filling government positions by the incoming administration's loyalists.

Administrations come and go, but the administrative state is ever-present, neither accountable to the administration above it or the taxpayers who pay for ever-more generous salaries and benefits to keep them at work.

They've become a fourth branch of government that holds great power and doesn't answer to taxpayers.

One doesn't need to enter the Beltway to find a similarly unaccountable bureaucracy in Mississippi.

There are occupational licensing commissions that work with minimal oversight from either the executive or legislative branches. While they're not conspiring against Gov. Phil Bryant, they've created a climate ripe for fraud, abuse and incompetence and creating overly steep barriers to entry for those wanting to start a business.

In the case of many agencies, the governor can appoint an executive director according to state law. For boards, the governor has the power to appoint members. Many of these, such as the state's board of medical licensure, limit the governor's choice by requiring them to pick from three candidates presented by the state's medical association.

The board then has the responsibility of hiring and overseeing an executive director, who runs the day to day regulatory operations.

The Legislature has the power of the purse with its appropriation power, but that's the limit of its authority. Since most occupational licensing boards are special fund agencies that don't receive their funding from the state's general fund and instead are funded through fees and fines, the Legislature's ability to rein in abuse is crimped severely.

Both the state auditor's office and the Joint Legislative Committee on Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review (PEER) committee have done a good job of spotlighting abuse with the administrative state.

The auditor's office, in three reports on occupational licensing boards, has found a lack of oversight by several boards over their executive directors. One of these directors was found by investigators to have been performing work for her personal business at the same time she said she was paid by taxpayers to conduct commission functions. She was also accused of using state money to buy personal items.

There were also problems with the security of checks and cash for license renewals at other boards, with thousands of dollars unsecured in the case of the Mississippi Board of Cosmetology.

Other times, executive directors have not followed leave policies for state employees.

The Legislature has passed some reforms, such as passing the nation's first law to create an oversight board to evaluate regulations passed by these boards.

Another law compels these boards to examine their regulations every two years, but the decision on whether a regulation should be rewritten is solely up to the board since the oversight board isn't able to do a backward analysis of the regulatory state.

These are good first steps, but more needs to be done to prevent waste, fraud and abuse with occupational licensing boards.

One of those could be dissolution, as Mississippi regulates more occupations than most states and could likely do the economy a favor by eliminating those that aren't related to public safety, such as the medical boards.

Whatever is done, taxpayers need more transparency and less government that's not accountable to them directly or those elected by them.

Steve Wilson covers state and local government for the Mississippi Independent News Service. You can follow him on Facebook and on Twitter.

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