California's plan aims to terminate licensing boards


SACRAMENTO, CALIF.— In an effort to streamline state government, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is threatening the state's 88 independent regulatory agencies with consolidation — a move that would eliminate the California Veterinary Medical Board (CVMB).

SACRAMENTO, CALIF.— In an effort to streamline state government, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is threatening the state's 88 independent regulatory agencies with consolidation — a move that would eliminate the California Veterinary Medical Board (CVMB).

The strategy outlined by Schwarzenegger's expert panel the California Performance Review equates the proposed consolidation savings to aid the state's growing $8 billion budget deficit. It's a measure that has outraged veterinary leaders, consumer watchdog groups and at least one state senator fervently resist.

Schwarzenegger, scheduled at presstime for a Feb. 7 pitch to the California Legislature, aims to convince lawmakers that herding many regulatory jobs into bureaus and abolishing others will "modernize" state government. At the same time, a panel dubbed the Little Hoover Commission has been charged with independent review of the Schwarzenegger plan. The 13-member commission is responsible for providing legislators with recommendations on the governor's directive. By all accounts, initial debates have proved contentious.

CVMB Executive Officer Sue Geranen fears the veterinary board's responsibility to protect the public and the profession's members is lost on the commission. While professional oversight is not in danger, Geranen claims merging into a bureau likely will cost knowledge and expertise as well as limit investigations into lay practice and consumer complaints. Unlike CVMB, which is funded by members, bureaus answer to state government and are run by governor appointees, she adds.

"These positions are pretty political; the governor would want his own people," she says. "I don't think there's a lot of support for consolidation, but it doesn't seem like the governor cares. It's always irritating to bureaucrats that there are independent entities out there. I don't know if he understands there's no benefit to this."

From board to bureau

Alleged cost savings associated with consolidation are the supposed benefits. CVMB and boards like it aren't funded via tax dollars but by member-paid licensing fees. Therefore, consolidation would not ease the bleeding of state coffers.

It's a detail that emerged during the Little Hoover Commission's initial meeting Jan. 26, when Fred Aguiar, secretary for the State and Consumer Services Agency, admitting during testimony that there were no cost savings associated with the consolidation approach. Under the governor's recommendation, Aguiar's agency would inherit the responsibilities of at least three-dozen endangered boards.

Still, Aguiar contends the reorganization will strengthen consumer protection by allowing the Department of Consumer Affairs to automate administrative functions, consolidate administrative services and prevent licensing backlogs.

"Under this proposal, nothing will change except for more accountability, more direct responsibility and more efficiency," Aguiar says in a statement.

Questionable savings

Additionally, stipends and travel costs currently paid to board members will be taken off the books, freeing money for enforcement efforts and other policy priorities, he adds. "Our efforts to protect consumers will be stronger when the governor and the Department of Consumer Affairs have real authority to hold these programs accountable."

Geranen disputes this suggestion. While Schwarzenegger portrays the boards as expensive, staffed by directors earning six-figure salaries in exchange for little work, testimony during the commission hearing revealed just four of the targeted 88 regulatory agencies provide such compensation.

CVMB is not one of them, Geranen says.

"These people don't realize that most board members, including ours, are volunteers," she says. "On the day they come to board meetings, members get $100 per diem for expenses. It's certainly not a budget drill."

Power play

More important than axing stipends, public information is at risk, says Julianne D'Angelo Fellmeth, an attorney with the Center for Public Interest Law at the University of San Diego School of Law.

Fellmeth, who monitors the California Medical Board, testified before the commission that boards must hold public meetings and respond to public comment. She likens the proposed move to "shoving public government into a private closet."

In addition, Schwarzenegger's plan makes regulation less democratic by vesting all of the power in the hands of the governor and his appointees who are vulnerable to special interest and trade group agendas, Geranen says.

"Boards are governed by the open meetings act, and all discussions are public record," she says. "You won't find that at the bureau level."

Senate support

One influential ally for veterinary medicine is Sen. Liz Figueroa, commission member and chairwoman of the Government Modernization Efficiency and Accountability Committee, the legislative team examining the governor's proposal. With no tax savings to tout, Figueroa questions Schwarzenegger's proposal and is holding a series of public hearings throughout California.

"To tell you the truth, we don't know what he's thinking," she says. "My concern is that with this plan, expertise and public participation will be lost. My office and I are meeting with the governor to come up with an alternative, one that would modernize government, make it accountable but at the same time make sure we have the transparency that everyone demands."

Figueroa publically questions the governor's attempt to eliminate some boards and not others that otherwise might appear futile. Such entities include the California Film Commission, headed by Hollywood friends Danny DeVito and Clint Eastwood, and the New Motor Vehicle Board, backed by car dealers who are large campaign contributors.

"I think we do have Senator Figueroa in our corner; she's been a big supporter of veterinary medicine," Geranen says. "She knows there is a sunset review process that most boards have gone through, which already determines our relevance."

Offering support

So does Valerie Fenstermaker, executive director of the California Veterinary Medical Association (CVMA), who on behalf of member veterinarians is drafting a letter to the Little Hoover Commission, expressing opposition.

"We're concerned that we won't be represented, and the public won't be protected without the veterinary medical board," she says. "We don't have a ton of information on this yet, and until we know more, it's hard to gauge what's going to happen."

Geranen predicts if lawmakers approve the governor's plan, the transition will be chaos. In the meantime, she awaits the Little Hoover Commission's report, expected March 1. From there, the Legislature will have 60 days to approve or reject the governor's plan but cannot make changes. Schwarzenegger has threatened to turn his efforts into a ballot initiative if the plan fails.

"The governor is trying to make some big moves, and I agree with that concept," she says. "But in thinking big, you also have to be willing to listen. In the end, I don't know where the recommendations will go. I think we just have to wait and see."

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