Election Day or Election Month?

October 24, 2008 in Blog

For those who want to know the election results on Election Night, here is some advice, go to bed early. Washington has more of an "Election Month" than "Election Day" due to the way we conduct our vote-by-mail elections. Highlighting this fact, the Associated Press wrote yesterday (Election day postmark means late results in Wash):

In Washington state, the election won't be over on Election Night.

The state's vote-by-mail system ensures that any close race will be unsettled for days afterward. That's because ballots count if they're mailed as late as midnight on Election Day, a system that usually leaves about half of the vote outstanding at the end of the night, keeping politicians and the public in a state of limbo . . .

Washington state is one of more than two dozen states that allow voters to cast absentee ballots without an excuse like illness, disability or travel. Numerous other states, like Florida, allow early voting at poll sites, along with absentee ballots. Most no-excuse absentee states, including Oregon, which is 100 percent vote-by-mail, require ballots to be in by the time the polls close on Election Day, if not earlier.

Washington is one of just a handful of states that require a postmark by Election Day or the day before, allowing ballots to arrive days later. But of those states, only Washington has a vast majority of mail voters who create a crush of ballots for county auditors to count after Election Night.

This doesn't have to be the case. Having lived in Oregon and participated in that state's 100% vote-by-mail process it was shocking to move to Washington and learn election results weren't hours from being known but in some cases weeks.

Here is an op-ed we released today on this topic: Ballots should be due on Election Day

"Intergovernmental cannibalism"

October 22, 2008 in Blog

There are a couple of great articles on taxes this morning discussing why voters should pay closer attention to the tax increase requests of elected officials. The first is in the Seattle PI (Time for Seattle to say no to taxes) quoting WPC's Paul Guppy:

Seattle voters have shown a remarkable willingness to tax themselves, even in the face of folly.

Not even President Bush, in his oil exploration days, managed to drill as many dry holes as elected officials operating out of Seattle's arid new City Hall.

We spent $444 million on the downtown bus tunnel, only to find that light rail tracks were the wrong size. A $45 million retrofit was required.

The monorail was a bust that cost local motorists $110 million. After investing $5 million in self-cleaning, high-tech toilets, the city ended up selling them on eBay for $12,500.

With a passive public -- and no political opposition -- city fathers and mothers have continued to pile on parking taxes, head taxes, bag taxes and various costs associated with politically correct garbage disposal and food recycling.

Paul Guppy, vice president for research at the conservative Washington Policy Center, offers up a provocative argument that every liberal Emerald City voter ought to ponder.

"Seattle leaders have learned that when they shape public funding choices in a certain way, voters will almost always go along," he writes. "From an elected official's point of view, this funding strategy makes perfect sense. After all, as long as voters continue to say 'yes' to paying more taxes, why not keep asking them for more taxes?

"One would expect this pattern to continue until city officials see voters express an unwillingness to go along and, because of economic worries or awareness of the accumulating tax burden, reject a special levy."

In short, just say no.

The second article is in the Seattle Times (Can we tax Peter, pay Paul?) highlighting the prospect of "intergovernmental cannibalism" on taxes:

OK. So I have a dumb question. It came to me when I realized last year's tax increases by coincidence almost equal this year's draconian cuts.

Why not use that money to solve this "crisis?" Why not, at the least, cancel those ridiculous foot ferries?

They are the old Mosquito Fleet walk-on ferries, between Kirkland, Renton and Seattle on Lake Washington. And Shilshole to downtown Seattle on the Sound. The council raised property taxes to reincarnate them last November.

None of these cities are on islands — a large part of why the last such ferry petered out in 1939. Each run today will carry maybe 300 riders. Yet we're steaming ahead with it. Even as we cut 59 cops. And call it all "a recipe for disaster."

The sheriff liked my dumb question.

"We can't tax people for all these special projects and then allow core functions of government, like public safety, to go down and down," she said . . .

On my way out, I ran into Scott Noble, the county tax assessor. I said this seems like no way to run a government. You have no idea, he said.

"There are 160 taxing districts in this county, all overlapping and competing," he said. "In tough times, you're going to see every one hard after the same buck. Something's got to give, but nothing's giving. So many are responsible that no one is accountable.

"I predict intergovernmental cannibalism."

He said that last part like he was looking forward to it.

It looks like now more than ever policymakers need to agree to a set of guiding principles of taxation to help keep taxpayers from being at risk of intergovernmental tax cannibalism.

Principles of Taxation for Elected Officials

October 21, 2008 in Blog

With Washington facing a projected $3.2 billion budget deficit (the difference between growing revenues and even faster projected spending growth), the temptation exists for elected officials to close the budget gap with tax increases. Already policymakers are being encouraged to enact a “temporary” sales tax increase. Before any conversation about raising taxes can occur, however, state officials should first agree to a set of guiding principles on taxation.

The proper function of taxation is to raise money for core functions of government, not to direct the behavior of citizens or close budget gaps created by overspending. This is true regardless of whether government is big or small, and this is true for lawmakers at all levels of government. Many lawmakers think of the tax code as a way to penalize “bad” behaviors and reward “good” ones. They have sought incessantly to guide, micromanage and steer the economy by manipulating the tax laws.

Taxation will always impose some damage on an economy’s performance, but that harm can be minimized if policymakers resist the temptation to use the tax code for social engineering, class warfare and other extraneous purposes. A simple and fair tax system is an ideal way for advancing Washington’s economic interests and promoting prosperity for its residents.

Recommendations for tax reform:

  • Adopt guiding principles based on equity and economic neutrality to shape changes in Washington’s tax system, so the tax system is focused on raising needed revenue for core functions of government, not directing the choices and behavior of citizens. Basic to the concept of a fair tax system is that the state should take no more from citizens than it needs to pay for the core functions of government. This consideration goes beyond the need to balance the budget; it is a matter of fundamental respect and trust between citizens and their government.
  • Policymakers should seek to lower the overall tax burden to promote prosperity and opportunity in the economy for the benefit of all citizens. Washingtonians require and expect basic government services, and taxes must be collected to pay for these services, but government revenue should be limited to real public needs, so the tax system itself does not become one of the major problems of life. A fair and efficient tax system is a matter of having respect for the citizens of our state.
  • Embrace tax transparency by creating an online searchable database of all state and local tax rates. Policymakers should build on the state’s transparency reforms and help citizens learn more about what government decisions mean to their pocket books.

The people of Washington work hard for what they earn. Money paid in taxes is by definition not available to meet other needs. As a matter of respect to citizens, policymakers should work to keep the overall level of taxation to the absolute minimum needed to pay for the core functions of government while being transparent about the total tax burden being imposed.

Principles of Taxation for Elected Officials

UW banking on "liberal" Legislature

October 17, 2008 in Blog

It appears the University of Washington is hoping a "liberal" Legislature will be sympathetic to its quest to receive tax revenue to renovate Husky Stadium. The Seattle PI reports (UW votes to advance stadium work):

The nation's slumping economy and the state's budget woes won't stop the University of Washington from pressing forward with plans to overhaul crumbling and badly outdated Husky Stadium.

University regents voted Thursday to authorize negotiations with a contractor for the stadium, moving a giant and potentially expensive step toward the project's design phase. But regents acknowledged that it could be a risky move for the university, since funding for half of the project has yet to be obtained.

The UW wants to finance half of the $300 million project through private funding and the rest through public tourist tax revenue -- the same revenue that funded Qwest and Safeco fields. But the Legislature shut the tourism-tax idea down earlier this year, and it's not yet clear if lawmakers will be more receptive to the proposal in 2009 when they'll be staring at a projected $3.2 billion spending shortfall . . .

"It is a tough sell, but the Legislature is pretty liberal, and I'm preaching Keynesian economics now," Woodward said, referring to the theory that the state can stimulate economic growth by means of -- among a long list of other things -- government spending.

Earlier this week, however, the UW announced it was facing a $10 million budget cut. UW's state relations director, Randy Hodgins, explains in his blog:

Conversations with staff in the Governor’s budget office today indicate that the UW’s share of these reductions is $9.6 million, which represents about two percent of our total FY 2009 state funds appropriation. It’s important to note that this is not an “automatic” budget reduction, but will be included in the Governor’s budget recommendations t!
o the Legislature. Ultimately, it will be up to the state legislature to decide whether these reductions are implemented and how much will be cut from each agency’s current biennial budget.

So will what the UW calls a "liberal" Legislature slow the growth of the UW's budget while approving a tax increase for its stadium renovation? Talk about mixed signals.

5-4 court orders Port of Seattle to provide lifetime healthcare benefits to employees

October 16, 2008 in Blog

In a 5-4 ruling the state Supreme Court today ordered the Port of Seattle to treat health care benefits for its employees like pension benefits and pay them into retirement. The case is Navlet v. Port of Seattle. The majority ruled:

. . . the Port is obligated to provide retirement welfare benefits for life to Appellants who have satisfied the eligibility requirements to receive such benefits . . . The trial court held that Appellants had no vested right to receive retirement welfare benefits because the [Collective Bargaining Agreement] CBA did not “unambiguously” vest the welfare benefits beyond the duration of the CBA itself. The court misconstrued our precedent regarding the creation of a vested right to retirement benefits. The conferral of compensatory retirement welfare benefits through a collective bargaining agreement creates a vested right for eligible re!
tirees absent express language in the agreement specifically limiting the right to such benefits.

Sharply disagreeing the minority writes:

I have great sympathy for the workers in this case, but the fact is that their contractual agreement with the Port does not authorize the benefits they seek. The unfortunate result of the majority opinion is that many employers will cease providing any health care benefits at all to employees in order to avoid the possibility of incurring an obligation to provide benefits for life -- at the least they will cease providing retiree health care benefits. The majority opinion is likely to affect a great many employees who, although not before us in this case, will suffer loss of health coverage and possibly loss of jobs before they acquire vested rights under the majority opinion.

. . . Ultimately, in the absence of anything in the parties’ agreement that states that a vested right to health care benefits for life is intended by the employer, the court is asserting itself as a super-legislature. The court should refrain from overstepping its constitutional role in this way.

This case is yet another example of a 5-4 ruling leaving the minority questioning whether the majority understands its constitutional role.

"The State of The Washington Supreme Court"

October 15, 2008 in Blog

The Judicial branch is arguably the most powerful branch of government yet it receives the least amount of attention of the three. Thankfully groups like the Federalist Society are doing their part to highlight the decisions judges are making that impact our lives.

In its August publication (The State of The Washington Supreme Court), the Federalist Society seeks to answer the question: "How faithful has the court been to its constitutionally defined role?"

The state Supreme Court cases reviewed from 2007/2008 fall under six headings:

  1. The Initiative/Referendum process;
  2. Statutory interpretation;
  3. The public’s right to know through the public disclosure/open records laws;
  4. Freedom of political speech;
  5. Private property rights; and
  6. The right to earn a living.

Speaking of the Federalist Society, WPC is co-sponsoring an event with them on October 24 to discuss the Economic Bail-Out of 2008. Here are additional details:

October 24, Washington Athletic Club in downtown Seattle, 11:30am registration and seating, program begins at noon. Cost is $25 per person. Please RSVP by Wednesday, October 22 by email to Sonya Jones at redraider2x [at] yahoo [dot] com, or by phone at 425-753-0984.

Impact fee performance audit

October 14, 2008 in Blog

The State Auditor's Office today released a performance audit on the "Use of Impact Fees in Federal Way, Olympia, Maple Valley, Redmond and Vancouver." Among the audit's recommendations is for cities to post their annual impact fee reports online so citizens can access them. From the audit:

To improve citizen access to public information, we recommend cities publish their annual impact fee reports online. Currently, cities that collect impact fees are required to prepare an annual impact fee report per RCW 82.02.070:

“Annually, each county, city, or town imposing impact fees shall provide a report on each impact fee account showing the source and amount of all moneys collected, earned, or received and system improvements that were financed in whole or in part by impact fees.”

It was noted that citi!
es are preparing these annual reports; however the information is generally not published or available online. Requiring the cities to publish these annual reports online would help to facilitate the State of Washington’s initiative to increase transparency and accountability of government agencies and programs.

The main conclusions from the performance audit are:

  • Lack of clarity in state law may be causing some cities to calculate and spend impact fees in a manner that could be inappropriate.
  • One city is charging builders higher impact fees than they should and their fees are not supported by a capital facilities plan as prescribed by law.
  • New developments in some cities are receiving questionable benefits for the impact fees paid.

A public hearing is scheduled for October 22 @ 1 p.m. to discuss this audit and the School Districts’ Administration and Support Services performance audit.

Hiding the pork

October 13, 2008 in Blog

The Seattle Times has an excellent investigative report on how Congress is still hiding the bacon despite passing so called earmark reform. In its article (Despite reforms, Congress hides $3.5B in defense earmarks) the Times notes:

Last year, Congress promised to shed light on the secretive process. But the lists of earmarks are still buried in obscure documents that are difficult to find and search. Until Congress put them online a couple of weeks ago, the House disclosure letters, linking lawmakers to companies, were thick volumes of paper kept in a cabinet in the offices of the House Appropriations Committee.

When a reporter for the Congressional Quarterly pointed out how difficult it remains to pull all the information together, Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., chairman of the committee that drafts the defense bill, had a quick answer: "Tough shit."

Since Congress apparently doesn't feel the need to be transparent to the American people on earmarks, the Times has created a searchable database of lawmakers, earmarks, and campaign giving.

Meanwhile the state's searchable budget website is scheduled to go live by January 1, 2009.

Mixed signals on spending rainy day account

October 9, 2008 in Blog

Based on recent news articles it is unclear if state officials are planning to spend the new constitutional rainy day account to address the $3.2 billion overspending problem facing the state.

Consider the following:

News Tribune - Senate Democrats: If someone asks you if you're going to raise taxes, duck the question

Q: Will you try and use the rainy day fund?

A: We are pleased we have the rainy-day fund, but we would rather not have to use it and will make that assessment once we get the final revenue forecast in November before writing the next budget.

Seattle PI - State's 'rainy day' fund could help reduce deficit by half

Gov. Chris Gregoire said Tuesday that she could cut the state's projected $3.2 billion deficit nearly in half with budget adjustments.

But to do it, she'll have to spend all of the current budget surplus -- including the $442 million currently aside in the state's "rainy day" fund.

Governor's Office - Gov. Gregoire announces plans for $330 million in budget savings

In addition to the savings in the current budget, the governor’s actions will save an additional $605 million in the 2009–11 budget. Together with the state’s current $850 million surplus, these steps will almost halve what is projected to be an approximate $3.2 billion shortfall in 2011.

Kitsap Sun - Governor: More Spending Cuts Are on the Table /p>

Gregoire said she would consider dipping into the $450 million rainy day fund "as a last resort" to fund state operations. Such a move would either require two-thirds approval by the Legislature or other economic indicators. "I wouldn't run it dry under any circumstances," she said. "Bad as it (the economy) is today, how would I know it wouldn't be worse tomorrow."

So is the state's rainy day account as good as spent come January or will it be saved for when revenue actually decreases versus simply not growing as fast as desired spending?

State budget solutions: Game on

October 8, 2008 in Blog

With yesterday's announcement of various budget actions by the Governor, for the first time all the potential players have acknowledged the projected $3.2 billion overspending problem facing the state. Up until now the Governor has not accepted the budget projections of the nonpartisan Senate Ways and Means Committee staff.

With the scope of the problem no longer being questioned the real work can begin to finally put the state on the path of sustainable budgeting. One way not to do this is to rely heavily on one time funds such as the new constitutional savings account still in its infancy of existence.

Instead a commitment must be made by those making the decisions next January that the state will not plan to spend more than forecasted revenue. The long-term answer is not to extend today's problem by balancing the budget with raids of every fund possible.

In the meantime it will be important to ensure that the cost savings measures announced actually materialize. Next week we should know if the hiring and contract freeze requested in August are taking root. Numbers to date, unfortunately, have not been encouraging.

OFM makes fee database available

October 6, 2008 in Blog

The Office of Financial Management (OFM) today posted on its website an inventory of state agency fees. The 2008 Fee Inventory is in response to a budget proviso passed by lawmakers in the 2008 supplemental budget. According to OFM:

Chapter 329, Section 127(15), Laws of 2008 requires that the Office of Financial Management “conduct a review and analysis of all fees for which the legislature has delegated to state agencies and institutions of higher education the ability to establish and determine the amount, either upon initial establishment or subsequent increases.”

The 2008 Fee Inventory includes only charges that meet the definition of a fee; it does not include charges such as penalties that are not fees for purposes of Chapter 43.135.055 Revised Code of Washington. Both fees set in statute and those set administratively by agencies are included.

The inventory also includes information about programs that these fees support. “Program” was defined by each agency in the most meaningful way for their information. Program may equate to activities used for budgeting purposes, as defined in the Activity Inventory; or, it may tie to program structure. Activity expenditures over the past five years are estimates since accounting for actual expenditures is only by program structure.

One of the features of the OFM Fee Inventory is a description for each fee of who benefits from the program supported. Having reviewed each agency's report, my favorite response to this question is for several fees under the control of the Department of Ecology.

Ecology's answers ranged from: "All Washington Citizens" to "Public" to "Breathing Public."

Hopefully the information from the OFM fee report will eventually be included in the state's pending searchable budget website or our proposed tax transparency website.

Click here to review OFM's 2008 Fee Inventory.

Getting out of the animal business

October 6, 2008 in Blog

It sounds like members of the King County Council are on the verge of taking the County out of the animal shelter business and turning these duties over to The Humane Society. According to articles today in the Seattle PI and Seattle Times:

"Today we are faced with the disturbing reality that progress has not been achieved," said Council Chairwoman Julia Patterson. "Enough is enough. We are recommending that King County get out of the business of operating an animal shelter." - Seattle Times

Council Chairwoman Julia Patterson and Vice Chairmen Dow Constantine and Reagan Dunn called a news conference inside the King County Courthouse to promote a plan that would reduce the county's role in animal services by partnering with a private agency to handle shelter services. "It would mean not being in the sheltering business any more," Constantine said. - Seattle PI

Earlier this year WPC encouraged the Council to take this step in a June 2 Seattle PI op-ed: Let pet lovers handle animal shelters

"State revenue flow requires transparency"

October 2, 2008 in Blog

The Olympian this morning offers an endorsement of our proposal for creation of a searchable tax transparency website. From the article (in-part):

"State lawmakers are fond of talking about openness and transparency in government, but generally come up short when it comes to taking positive legislative action.

This year was an exception when the House and Senate passed Senate Bill 6818, which requires the state to make available to the public detailed information about state spending. State officials have until Jan. 1, 2009, to assemble line-by-line state spending data and make it available to the public via a Web site.

It's a great step forward to a more open and transparent government. Now it's time for lawmakers to shift their focus to the revenue side and give the public the same kind of detailed information about the taxes they pay to support government programs . . .

For those who want to delve into the state budget and see how tax dollars are spent, the transparency law will be of great benefit. Residents can thank the Washington Policy Center, a nonpartisan, free-market, state-based think tank in Seattle, for pressing the measure into law.

Now the policy center is back with a second transparency proposal, this time on the revenue side . . .

If passed by the Legislature, the bill would set up an online database where users could find their state and local tax rates — such as property and sales taxes — by entering their zip code, street address or by clicking on a map showing individual taxing district boundaries. An online calculator would let citizens determine their total tax burden and also identify which officials are responsible for each part of the tax bill . . .

In January, legislators once again will be tested on their commitment to openness and transparency — this time on the taxation side. They can pass the test only by passing the taxation transparency measure."

The Seattle PI has also endorsed our proposal for more tax transparency.

K-12 admin performance audit

September 30, 2008 in Blog

The State Auditor's Office today released a performance audit of the state's 10 largest school districts' administrative practices. According to SAO:

"If our recommendations for improved economy and efficiency are followed, school districts could achieve cost savings exceeding $54 million over five years. Of the 13 audit areas we identified, not all affect each district; in fact certain districts are commended for their work in some areas."

One of the areas reviewed was district financial management and cost analysis:

"For school districts to achieve the objectives of accountability and comparability, financial information must be both relevant and reliable for reasonably informed users. Financial reports must satisfy numerous and diverse needs or objectives, including short-term financial position and liquidity, budgetary and legal compliance, and issues that hav!
e a long-term focus such as capital budgeting and maintenance. Additionally, differences exist in the amount of detail that various users need . . .

Currently, Washington school districts do not have a complete and accurate financial picture of their programs or functions. This does not mean that costs associated with each program are not reviewed and carefully monitored throughout the year. Additionally, each district can point to aggressive steps they are taking to cut budgets and reduce costs in all areas. However, without accurate cost accounting for each project, it becomes increasingly difficult to assess and compare programs or departments and determine any areas that can afford budget cuts . . .

One of the important uses of accurate financial data is for comparability purposes. There are an infinite number of ways that financial data can be analyzed using historical data, industry data and 'what-if' scenarios. All cost analysis can be valuable, but in the government sector, especially in entities such as school districts that are subject to rigorous cost scrutiny, the ability to respond to the public and other groups as to why they operate under certain conditions or models is critical to public acceptance, which in Washington State is critical to funding approvals and other school district actions."

Click here for the full audit.

Transparency coast to coast

September 23, 2008 in Blog

This past weekend I was in Baltimore at a national open government retreat working on recommendations for the next President on how to make the federal government more transparent and accountable.

Among the 70 individuals at the retreat were representatives from OMB Watch, National Security Archive, ACLU, Society of Professional Journalists,, League of Women Voters and Reporter’s Committee for Freedom of the Press to name a few.

WPC has been working with these groups for the past year on the 21st Century Right to Know Project. One of the recommendations I made that may be incorporated in the final report produced is for the next President to issue an open government executive order modeled after the one signed by Florida Governor Charlie Crist.

The federal bailout bill also was discussed at the retreat. There is serious concern about the level of secrecy being included in the draft bailout proposal. Here is a memo that was worked on at the conference that is circulating amongst open government groups. Here is the language of the bailout proposal.

Continuing our transparency efforts, last week I also participated on a panel on government transparency in Phoenix at the annual meeting of the State Policy Network, the national organization of state think-tanks. I announced WPC's recommendation for a tax transparency website that would provide an online searchable database of all tax rates in the state. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer endorsed our recommendation shortly after its release. Other SPN groups may now take our recommendation to their own states for their lawmakers to consider.

I’ll provide updates on both these efforts (Baltimore/Phoenix) as they develop.