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As Cox reviews state agencies, some could merge under a bill in the legislature

Utah State Capitol fall
Posted at 4:50 PM, Dec 02, 2020
and last updated 2020-12-02 19:30:01-05

SALT LAKE CITY — As Governor-elect Spencer Cox's transition team conducts a review of every department and division in state government, a bill is being drafted in the Utah State Legislature that contemplates merging two cabinet-level agencies.

The governor-elect's transition team has sent out a questionnaire to every agency head that asks whether there are positions that are duplicated in another department, suggesting some agencies could be merged. But it's one of many questions that signals the incoming administration's priorities.

The questionnaire, provided to FOX 13 by the governor-elect's office, include questions like: if Utahns benefit from that department's programs; do they maximize taxpayer dollars; how does the media characterize the department; and the impact of COVID-19 on the agency.

There are two sections that ask about employee satisfaction, including how they are feeling and whether state employees have enough "two-way" communication with leadership. It also inquires about turnover rate, vacant positions, employee diversity distribution (gender, ethnicity, etc.), percentage of employees who live in urban or rural areas of Utah and whether they can telework.

"Is there duplication or overlap between your department and other departments? Which positions within your agency are redundant? How could a future administration reduce FTE while maximizing value? Are you aware of where positions within your agency may be duplicated across other agencies? Cite examples for each," the questionnaire asks department heads.

That question has raised its own questions about whether state agencies might be combined, but Gov.-elect Cox's communications director said no decisions have been made.

"The transition team is exploring many ideas and these surveys are just part of that exploration. No recommendations have been made nor any decisions by the incoming administration. We’re keeping an open mind," Jennifer Napier-Pearce told FOX 13.

One lawmaker is moving independently with an idea to shuffle some state agencies. Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield, who chairs the Utah State Legislature's Social Services Appropriations Committee, is drafting a bill to move Medicaid services from Utah's Department of Health over to the Department of Workforce Services.

"The majority of the work on Medicaid is being done by Workforce Services," he said in an interview Wednesday with FOX 13.

By doing that, Rep. Ray said, he envisioned combining Utah's Department of Health with the Department of Human Services.

"That’s the majority of the budget for the Department of Health, so it makes sense to at least explore moving Department of Health into Department of Human Services into one, so you have Health & Human Services. You find a lot of efficiencies by doing that, then you reduce the cabinet by one member and budget wise, it flows a lot easier," he said.

Throughout its history, the Utah Department of Health has been combined and separated from other agencies including Human Services by various administrations.

It remains to be seen if the state would lay anyone off if agencies were to be combined. Rep. Ray said he was not sure how far any bill he runs would go in the 2021 legislative session, but he envisioned moving employees around and not filling vacancies.

"I think a lot of it will be your operating costs we’ll be able to save off of," he said.