Anyone looking for an example of the transparency games being played in Olympia needs look no further than what is happening today. A Senate Ways and Means hearing is scheduled for 1:30pm today, and at 12:09pm Senate Bill 5754 was added to the agenda. SB 5754 concerns publication of tax data to ensure the transparency of Washington's tax preferences.
The less than 90 minutes notice gives people from Eastern Washington no opportunity to go to Olympia to testify on the bill. In fact, it barely gives them time to phone or email their Senator with questions.
Just when we thought Washington’s east against west mindset was starting to settle down, it has boiled back up. Several Western Washington legislators have introduced bills that would allow the legislature to dissolve counties that don’t generate enough state tax revenue--and most of the targets are in Eastern Washington.
On August 17th, Washington Policy Center environmental director Todd Myers and Eastern Washington office director Chris Cargill, toured the Hanford Nuclear site. This is the area where emergency crews practice their response to any eventuality.
City officials in Spokane, facing a $12 million budget shortfall, are now considering a potpourri of new taxes and fees to fill the gap.
In addition to asking for a 1% hike in property taxes, Mayor Mary Verner is supporting a new vehicle tab fee in Spokane. The $20 fee would boost the cost of vehicle licensing for Spokane residents to $63.75 per year. It was just 11 years ago that Washington voters approved I-695, capping licensing fees at $30 per year. Cities in Washington are allowed to add vehicle licensing fees on top of the state fees.
The Mayor says the city will use the money for street maintenance, despite proclamations from council members that it would be used elsewhere to fill budget holes.
Meantime, Spokane City Councilmember Richard Rush wants to impose another new tax on pay parking lots, to the tune of $75 per space. The money will be passed on to shoppers and workers who use those spaces in downtown Spokane.
If all of these are passed, the average Spokane resident is likely to pay more than $200 a year in additional taxes- just to the city of Spokane. That doesn't include the more than $800 million in new taxes passed by the legislature in Olympia in the last session.
The $12 million shortfall is not because Spokane residents are not generous in paying their taxes. Rather, it is because the city overspends the money it already has in the bank. It needs look no further than union worker contracts. In 2011, the city of Spokane's police union is getting another week and a half of paid vacation and a 4% salary raise. Private sector workers in Spokane are struggling through the recession and not getting extra vacation time and pay increases.
During an economic downtown, government officials have to get creative. Raising taxes and fees on voters to fill a budget gap and increase union contracts is not creative. It will only hurt the local economy in the short and long term.
While cutting back core public services, Spokane County Commissioners voted 2-1 this week to spend another $588,000 taxpayer dollars to make upgrades to Spokane Raceway Park. Commissioners Todd Mielke and Mark Richard voted in favor, Commissioner Bonnie Mager voted against.
The Raceway Park was purchased by the county for $4.3 million in a controversial move several years ago. Since then, the county has spent $1.1 million on repairs. Meanwhile, most county departments are still trying to figure out how to cut 12.5% from their budgets. The park was purchased under the assumption it could lead to economic development. It hasn't yet. Even if it eventually does, government does not have a responsibility to own and operate raceway facilities.
Next year, Spokane County Commissioners plan to ask voters to raise property taxes even higher to build a new jail. Money spent on the raceway could and should have been used on essential government services, such as the jail. The purchase and subsequent managing of the raceway is yet another example of the struggles government faces when it gets involved in running a business that can be better-served in private hands.
Residents throughout Washington state are going to find something out this week that people in Spokane and Bellingham already know- dishwashing detergent without phosphorus doesn't always do a very good job washing dishes.
Starting July 1st, a state-wide ban on dishwashing detergent with phosphorus goes into effect. The ban is nothing new in Spokane and Whatcom counties, which yanked the detergent from the shelves in 2008. The phosphorus, environmental groups say, degrades water quality in lakes and streams. Before the ban, detergent like Cascade had phosphorus levels of roughly 5-6%. After the ban, dishwashing detergent companies sold a phosphate-free product, but it left dishes looking dirty with a cloudy substance caked on glasses. Some of the initial problem was because of Spokane's 'hard water.'
In Spokane, since the ban went into place, estimates have varied as to how effective it has really been. One estimate, from this Spokesman-Review article, says there has been just a 10.7% drop in the phosphorus levels in the Spokane River. The Spokane office of the Washington State Department of Ecology says it’s doing a 'quality assurance report' to see exactly what kind of impact the ban is having on the water.
But the results may not be that much more promising. The reason? Like crossing state-lines to avoid Washington's high tobacco tax, dishwashing detergent smugglers continue to make their way into Post Falls and Coeur d'Alene to buy detergent with phosphorus. At one Wal-Mart in Idaho, a cashier said she could tell who was from Idaho and who was from Washington, simply by looking to see how much detergent they were buying. Recently, stores in Idaho have begun selling only phosphorus-free detergents.
Also, water in the Spokane River comes from North Idaho- where phosphorus detergents are still widely being used.
In Spokane County, any environmental benefits gained by banning the phosphorus detergents have been lost by people who jump in their cars and travel the 10-20 miles across state lines to buy their dishwashing detergents, and by people who are actually washing the dishes twice.
Furthermore, the ban has cost the state of Washington sales tax revenue and cost many grocery stores business. All of this effort is not worth just a 10.7% drop in phosphorus levels in the Spokane River.
Spokane Mayor Mary Verner today announced a budget outline for the upcoming fiscal year that trims some jobs, does not raise taxes, and asks city unions to accept more responsibility for the cost of their own health care.
The Mayor's proposal seeks to cut $10 million from the city's budget. To do that, she wants to eliminate 18.5 police positions, nine firefighter positions, and reduce some city services to just four days a week. Many of the eliminated positions don't necessarily mean job cuts, as some openings will just remain vacant.
Perhaps the most interesting part of the proposal is the mayor's request that some city workers be willing to consider changing the way the city funds their health care coverage. The mayor wants to cap taxpayers’ annual exposure to health care premium increases at 4%. That means if health care premiums in subsequent years increase 10% (which has been the case in recent years), city union workers would have to pick up the remaining 6% of the tab or pick a different health benefit. Right now, various unions in the City of Spokane pay as little as 6% or as much as 25% of their benefits. Taxpayers cover the rest.
Washington Policy Center recommends state workers also open up their contracts to pay more for their own health care costs. Right now, state workers pay nothing for their dental care and far-less than their private sector counterparts for health benefits. While the workers enjoy great benefits, taxpayers are the ones left holding the bill.
It’s sad when hospitals that went into business to help people be healthy, have to battle over expansion efforts that would create more jobs and better access to health care. But that’s what is going on in the Tri-Cities right now.
The headline in the weekend edition of the Tri-City Herald says it all; “Tri-City hospitals at war.” The fight is required by an outdated, unneeded state process called the ‘Certificate of Need.’ It puts state officials, not medical professionals, in charge of deciding how large a medical facility a community needs.
In this case, Kadlec and Kennewick General Hospitals are both being forced to criticize the other to get a thumbs-up for expansion from the state. Kadlec wants to add 114 beds, while Kennewick General seeks an additional 25. Chances are slim that both expansion permits would be approved, because the state believes adding more hospital beds to a community drives up costs. This has been proven to be untrue and the information the state uses to decide the expansion process is unreliable.
So instead of concentrating on providing the best and most cost-effective care for patients, the hospitals have been questioning the other’s occupancy rates for weeks. More public hearings are planned in the coming month. The state says the CON process, usually taken one-by-one, helps keep other hospitals in business. But what happens when two hospitals apply at the same time? The answer is simple- government officials pick the winner.
Last year, state officials rejected a much-needed expansion of Sacred Heart Medical Center in Spokane which would have created hundreds of jobs, expanded medical care and made Sacred Heart the largest hospital in the state. The next time someone in the Tri-Cities can’t get adequate medical care because of a lack of hospital beds, we’ll know who to blame.
Facing declining enrollment, the Spokane Public School district announced this week it is going to lay off 18 employees, mostly teachers. At the same time, the district says it plans to hire them back. The reasons and restrictions surrounding such a decision are mind boggling. Let’s take them one-by-one.
More than 300 people showed up to a public meeting last night in Kennewick to urge the state to approval bed expansion requests by both Kadlec Regional Medical Center and Kennewick General Hospital.
Both hospitals want to expand; Kadlec by 114 beds and Kennewick by 25. However, because of state laws that limit expansion of hospitals, most in the community believe one request is likely to be denied. The ‘Certificate of Need’ makes it illegal for hospitals to expand without permission from the government. Washington is one 37 states that require specific government permission to open, expand or modify most kinds of health facilities. CON laws have grown out of the belief that a surplus of medical facilities and services meant providers would pass the excess cost onto patients.
The federal government saw the failure of CON laws and repealed them in 1982. Fourteen states have followed suit and Washington should do the same.
The ‘need’ for these beds is clear. It has become routine for beds to be full at Kadlec and Kennewick, and for patients to be sent to hospitals outside the area. Doctors at the meeting said they have been averaging 10% growth in patient numbers for the past 15 years because of the Tri-Cities population boom. Doctors entered their profession to help patients, not fight state regulations. Other medical experts who testified said the state is putting them in a position to fight other medical institutions for beds. Instead of medical experts and the communities they serve, the state then becomes the ‘decider’ in determining how much care should be available in each community.
As pointed out in the WPC Policy Guide, “CON laws create the opposite of their intended purpose, actively blocking citizens’ access to health care choices and modern health care facilities. The laws also bog down health care providers in stacks of regulation and paperwork.”
pan style="BACKGROUND-COLOR: #fcfae1; FONT-FAMILY: Helvetica; FONT-SIZE: 14px">mischaracterization of what he was trying to say. Cooley says his comments were simply a metaphor to highlight the economic value of Riverfront Park.
The City of Spokane’s Chief Financial Officer Gavin Cooley, in no-uncertain terms indicated he wants the city of Spokane to consider increasing taxes and mentioned once-again imposing a city-wide Business and Occupation tax.
While discussing options for how to pay for the purchase of the Downtown Spokane-Riverfront Park YMCA building, Cooley said the city needn’t accept an offer from Spokane County to buy the facility. Council members are trying to figure out how to pay off the $4.4 million debt they incurred when they bought the property and building.
Cooley said the city should look at increasing hotel taxes, selling parks or boosting property taxes. He then went on to remind the council about a B&O tax that once existed in the city to help pay for Expo ’74 improvements.
Never mind that both Spokane and Spokane County face enormous deficits, and that officials are already asking for higher property taxes for a new Spokane County jail. In addition, the B&O tax would only push more small business people to the brink and outside city limits. If Spokane wants to attract new businesses and new jobs, and keep the ones it already has, adopting higher taxes, and especially a new city B&O tax during a recession is not the way to do it.