The Department of Information Services (DIS) last week launched a YouTube site for the state. This is part of the state's effort to "incorporate Web 2.0 functionality that helps us expand our public outreach."
Earlier this year DIS put out a Request For Proposal (RFP) to provide the state with "a web search tool that assists with strengthening the relationship between lawmakers and their constituents by maximizing transparency of the work of government."
This effort is continuing but may run into budget pressures due to the state's fiscal outlook.
In the meantime the state's new searchable budget website is scheduled to go live next month. I had the opportunity to see a demo of the site and am happy to report it won't disappoint. We're encouraging the Governor's GMAP Office and the Office of Financial Management to enhance their websites to mimic the functionality of the pending searchable budget website. (WPC letters here and here)
It looks like the Governor has also caught the Web 2.0 bug; her office launched a redesigned website last week. The Governor noted in a press release:
“To be effective and responsive, state government must stay in tune with changing technologies. This new Web site provides opportunities for Washingtonians to easily find the information they need about how the governor’s office works on their behalf and readily provide feedback.”
The Washington State Auditor’s Office is revamping its Web site, www.sao.wa.gov. We are asking citizens, audit clients and interested parties to provide feedback on the usability of our existing Web site and suggestions for our new Web site. The brief survey is available at http://www.surveymonkey.com/s.aspx?sm=4rnLG0uBAXDY8uaa9S11hg_3d_3d and closes at 5 p.m. on Dec. 4. Thank you for your time and assistance in improving the Washington State Auditor’s Web site.
Though the shock of yesterday's revenue forecast will not soon fade a great opportunity is at hand if lawmakers will rise to the occasion. The unsustainable spending growth of the past is being brought back to reality by the economy. If state officials respond by enacting a meaningful constitutional spending limit next year we may be able to avoid future headlines of multi-billion dollar deficits.
Consider what may have been had I-601, the 1993 voter-approved spending limit, not been eviscerated by lawmakers in 2005. During I-601's heyday (1993-2005), state spending growth averaged just under 8 percent per budget. Assuming an even more liberal 10 percent budget growth since 2005, state spending today would be $1.2 billion lower.
Projected General Fund State spending based on 10 percent growth since 2005 (Dollars in Millions)
Actual General Fund State spending growth since 2005 (Dollars in Millions)
Today's headlines will likely read: "State revenue down $1.9 billion." This is the news coming out of the state revenue forecast. What is important to remember, however, is despite this decrease, revenue is still projected to grow by 5% in the next budget cycle and revenues are still expected to be higher in the current budget than the past. This fact is demonstrated in the table below.
General Fund State Revenue Growth (Dollars in Millions)
Source: Washington State Economic and Revenue Forecast Council
This does not mean the state isn't facing a real problem. The reduced revenue growth for the current budget means that the state is now facing a potential $413 million cash deficit due to the spending levels adopted (not including budget reserve account).
If at any time during the fiscal period the governor projects a cash deficit in a particular fund or account as defined by RCW 43.88.050, the governor shall make across-the-board reductions in allotments for that particular fund or account so as to prevent a cash deficit, unless the legislature has directed the liquidation of the cash deficit over one or more fiscal periods . . .
With today's economic news, now is the time for Washingtonians to become actively involved and offer their recommendations to state officials on how to build a sustainable core function focused budget.
In a message few in D.C. thought they'd hear, South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford is telling the federal government NOT to bail out the states. Here is an excerpt from Sanford's Wall Street Journal op-ed:
I find myself in a lonely position. While many states and local governments are lining up for a bailout from Congress, I went to Washington recently to oppose such bailouts. I may be the only governor to do so.
But I suspect I'm not entirely alone, as there are a lot of taxpayers who aren't pleased with Christmas coming early for politicians. And I hope these taxpayers make their voices heard before Democrats load up the next bailout train for states with budget deficits . . .
In 2008 bailouts became the first resort. Over the past year the federal government has committed itself to $2.3 trillion (including the tax rebate "stimulus" checks of last February) to "improve" the economy. I don't see how another $150 billion now will make a difference in a global slowdown. We've already unloaded truckloads of sugar in a vain attempt to sweeten a lake. Tossing in a Twinkie will not make the difference.
However, there is something Congress can do: free states from federal mandates. South Carolina will spend about $425 million next year meeting federal unfunded mandates. The increase in the minimum wage alone will cost the state $2.6 million and meeting Homeland Security's REAL ID requirements will cost $8.9 million.
The following report compiles individual Priorities of Government (POG) Result Team priorities for state activities. These Result Teams of agency, OFM and other executive staff were charged with making choices based solely the activity performance and alignment with evidenced-based strategies for achieving each of the ten statewide results.
This information is advisory to the Governor as she develops her 2009-11 budget for the state. It does not represent any final budget decisions.
I haven't had a chance to digest the information yet but here is a sampling of the "low" priorities identified:
Early Learning Programs
National Board for Professional Teaching Standards
Student Achievement Fund
Rail Passenger Operations
Public Transportation - Congestion Mitigation and Transit Efficiency
Roadside and Landscape Maintenance
Health Insurance - Adults between 100-200% of poverty level
At a very lively meeting of the state's Sunshine Committee today, the members adopted a recommendation concerning public record exemptions for "work product" and "attorney-client privilege." By a 7-3 vote, the members approved the following resolution submitted by Ken Bunting:
BE IT RESOLVED THAT: It is the sense and intent of this committee that the state of applicable law in Washington state, on the attorney-client privilege and the work-product rule as they relate to open government matters, should be essentially what it was before the state Supreme Court’s 2004 Hangartner ruling and its 2007 Soter ruling.
Next step is for the Legislature to weigh in on this contentious issue.
In other open government news, the 21st Century Right to Know Coalition (WPC is a member) released today its recommendations to President-elect Obama on how to improve federal government transparency. As noted by OMB Watch:
As President-elect Obama's transition team gets to work, OMB Watch has teamed with dozens of organizations and individuals to provide key recommendations on government openness, reform of the regulatory process, and government performance issues. Started well before the 2008 elections, the projects that produced these recommendations brought together diverse groups of people to work on some of the most pressing problems and concerns that will face Obama when he takes office in January 2009.
OMB Watch convened a group of hundreds of individuals and organizations from across the political spectrum to put together recommendations on government openness, information, and other transparency issues. The recommendations stress the need for the Obama administration and Congress to move the federal government's information disclosure and sharing policies and processes into the 21st century, which includes the efficient, effective use of modern Internet technologies. The recommendations fall into three categories: National Security and Secrecy; Usability of Information; and Creating a Government Environment for Transparency. The group has also lifted up a number of the recommendations as issues the Obama administration should tackle during its first 100 days.
After attending the state economic forecast meeting last Friday and hearing about the trouble ahead, I needed some good news. Thankfully it came in the way of the Governor's comments yesterday to the Associated Press. As reported in the News Tribune:
Gregoire, describing herself as an optimist, said she’s looking at the budget gap and faltering economy as an opportunity to fundamentally rethink the role of state government in Washington’s economic health.
Without going into specifics, Gregoire said she hopes to identify government functions and programs that might be better handled in the private sector or the nonprofit arena.
“This should not be simply a budget-cutting exercise. We should be thinking about, how do we grow our economy, how do we create jobs, and what reforms we can put in place,” Gregoire said. “Government is really going to have to get back to the absolute, essential basics.”
Count the Washington Policy Center ready to help bring about this fundamental reform to state government.
One idea is to begin a “base closing” process for state programs and agencies to determine which ones can be consolidated or eliminated. We discuss this reform and many others in our Policy Guide for Washington State.
More good news has come in the way of the state's editorial boards, reminding the Governor that they expect her to deliver on her no tax or fee increase campaign pledge. Here is a sampling:
"The people of this state are suffering right now, and a tax increase to pay for programs to address some of these issues is the worst possible idea. Government should not punish Washington families by piling on more fees and taxes that make it harder to make ends meet. Thankfully, Gregoire vowed during the campaign that she is also not in favor of any new taxes. We remind her now of that promise, and promise on our end to do what we can to hold her to her word." - Bellingham Herald (Much work to be done in state; taxes not an option)
"Her biggest challenge will not be Republicans in the Legislature who desire to block and impede her efforts, but fellow Democrats who will clamor to raise taxes to spare pet programs from the budget ax. Gregoire the candidate said she would not raise taxes. How hard will she fight to live up to that promise? Raising taxes is the last thing we need in this dour economy." - Seattle Times (Re-elected Gov. Christine Gregoire has tough work ahead)
With the prospect of a projected $3.2 billion budget problem growing even larger after this month's revenue forecast, some in Olympia are already talking about tax increases - this only two days removed from the election. According to the Seattle Times (Gregoire's next big test: balancing budget without raising taxes):
. . . Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, D-Spokane, didn't rule out the prospect of tax or fee increases.
Brown also said lawmakers could look at targeted taxes or fees, or consider ending certain tax exemptions.
"If you look at a tax exemption and you decide you need to close it or limit it somehow, is that raising a tax? Some of it comes down to definitions," she said.
Gregoire was pretty explicit during the campaign when pressed on whether she'd support increasing taxes or fees next year. She said no and reaffirmed the vow Wednesday.
"Now is not the time you put taxes on people," she said, adding that during the campaign she has met people across the state who are suffering from the economic problems that have shaken the nation.
Still, some Democrats see wiggle room for the governor.
Paul Berendt, a former chairman of the state Democratic Party, said he thinks Gregoire and lawmakers could put together a tax package that would help balance the budget and support new programs — and send it to voters.
That would allow Gregoire to propose additional spending without signing a tax increase.
The fact that voters agreed to raise sales taxes for a $17.9 billion Sound Transit light-rail expansion suggests that approach could work, Berendt said.
When asked recently if she'd support sending a tax increase to voters, Gregoire said, "I will leave that to my colleagues in the Legislature. I will forever maintain that the voters ought to be able to decide that. ... I wouldn't be involved in it. It would bypass me. It would not be something that the governor would sign on to or sign off on."
While sending a tax increase proposal to voters would be consistent with the Governor's comments that any tax increase should receive voter-approval, how would a tax increase referendum provide any "wiggle room" on her repeated campaign statements reaffirmed in the Times article that now is not the time to raise taxes on Washingtonians?
Based on her comments above, any doubt now that Sen. Brown's lawsuit to overturn the voter-approved 2/3 vote requirement for tax increases has more to do with the ability to easily raise taxes than the Senator let on?
While some in Washington continue to flirt with the theory that if only the state had an income tax we'd never have another budget problem, our neighbor to the south is discussing repealing its income taxes and moving instead to sales taxes.
Oregon's state government system relies heavily on income taxes, with about 90 percent of its general fund and lottery revenues coming from individual income taxes. That system is volatile because income tax receipts drop during economic downturns, leaving the state short of money to pay for education and other services.
Long-term options listed by the task force include:
Eliminating the state's personal income tax and imposing an 8.5 percent sales tax with exemptions for items such as shelter and in-home food. The group notes this approach would reduce net income for most households without offsetting provisions . . . The task force began meeting a year ago. While it does not favor any long-term approach over another, it does recommend some short-term changes, including having Oregonians vote on placing the state's rainy day fund, created by the 2007 Legislature, in the Oregon Constitution and increasing the fund's cap.
As demonstrated by Oregon's experience with income tax receipts, there is no recession proof tax structure. Policy makers should not focus tax reform discussions around raising more revenue but instead should ensure the tax system is based on sound principles of taxation.
This is why the state's notorious B&O tax is ripe for reform or replacement - it fails the principles of sound taxation on many levels as identified by WPC's Carl Gipson in this four-part series:
The Olympian reports this morning that state Senator Rodney Tom (D-Bellevue) is proposing a constitutional amendment to allow the governor to appoint the Superintendent of Public Instruction. The article quotes from the Senator's press release:
The goals of GMAP were also placed into statute by the Legislature in 2005 meaning regardless of who wins the election some version of the program will continue. RCW 43.17.385 reads:
(1) Each state agency shall, within available funds, develop and implement a quality management, accountability, and performance system to improve the public services it provides.
(2) Each agency shall ensure that managers and staff at all levels, including those who directly deliver services, are engaged in the system and shall provide managers and staff with the training necessary for successful implementation.
(3) Each agency shall, within available funds, ensure that its quality management, accountability, and performance system:
(a) Uses strategic business planning to establish goals, objectives, and activities consistent with the priorities of government, as provided in statute;
(b) Engages stakeholders and customers in establishing service requirements and improving service delivery systems;
(c) Includes clear, relevant, and !
easy-to-understand measures for each activity;
(d) Gathers, monitors, and analyzes activity data;
(e) Uses the data to evaluate the effectiveness of programs to manage process performance, improve efficiency, and reduce costs;
(f) Establishes performance goals and expectations for employees that reflect the organization's objectives; and provides for regular assessments of employee performance;
(g) Uses activity measures to report progress toward agency objectives to the agency director at least quarterly;
(h) Where performance is not meeting intended objectives, holds regular problem-solving sessions to develop and implement a plan for addressing gaps; and
(i) Allocates resources based on strategies to improve performance.
>(4) Each agency shall conduct a yearly assessment of its qual!
ity management, accountability, and performance system.
(5) State agencies whose chief executives are appointed by the governor shall report to the governor on agency performance at least quarterly. The reports shall be included on the agencies', the governor's, and the office of financial management's web sites.
(6) The governor shall report annually to citizens on the performance of state agency programs. The governor's report shall include:
(a) Progress made toward the priorities of government as a result of agency activities; and
(b) Improvements in agency quality management systems, fiscal efficiency, process efficiency, asset management, personnel management, statutory and regulatory compliance, and management of technology systems.
(7) Each state agency shall integrate efforts made under this section with other management, accountability, a!
nd performance systems undertaken under executive order or other authority.
So why should you care?
If properly utilized GMAP has the potential to help move the budget discussion away from spending outputs and instead focusing the debate on purchasing performance outcomes. This means that if we ever get a meaningful spending limit, a tag team effort of GMAP, Performance Audits, and Priorities of Government budgeting (POG) could lay the groundwork for a sustainable performance based budget focused on purchasing outcomes for Washington citizens instead of the state budget being used as a laundry list of spending goodies for special interest.
Unfortunately this potential hasn't been realized yet.
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.
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.
Jason Mercier is Director of the Center for Government Reform at Washington Policy Center and is based in the Tri-Cities. He serves on the boards of the Washington Coalition for Open Government and CandidateVerification, and was an advisor to the 2002 Washington State Tax Structure Committee. Jason is an ex-officio for the Tri-City Regional Chamber of Commerce. In June 2010, former Governor Gregoire appointed Jason as WPC’s representative on her Fiscal Responsibility and Reform Panel.