The Olympian reports today on a hearing of The Washington Citizens' Commission on Salaries for Elected Officials. Not surprisingly a majority of those elected officials testifying asked the Commission to not raise their pay in light of the economic situation. As noted by The Olympian:
Testimony before a state citizen salary commission blew like a headwind this morning against giving pay increases this year to state elected officials, judges or legislators.
New state Treasurer Jim McIntire, a Democrat, testified against giving raises, saying increases would put lawmakers — and others poised to freeze the pay of state employees and K-12 teachers — in a tough position. He urged commissioners not to raise pay.
Two other Democrats, Gov. Chris Gregoire and new Commissioner of Public Lands Peter Goldmark, both sent letters to!
the commission arguing against raises. Gregoire wrote that she recognized the difficulty of balancing fair salaries against public opinion.
Rather than force elected officials to beg a commission to not raise their pay, an alternative may be eliminating the Salaries Commission and restoring this conversation to the legislature. Such a change would also have a positive impact on the state's budget.
Consider the fact the Governor's 2009-11 budget provides $395,000 for the Commission's activities.
B) look over a friend's notes on the way to the classroom and hope for the best; or
C) calmly and diligently spend time before the test to prepare?
Now remember the question is what should you do not what do you do. The obvious answer is C).
Unfortunately when it comes to legislative budget proposals, lawmakers and the public are often forced to do either A) or B).
One way to address this problem is with a "budget timeout" before public hearings or votes could occur on legislative spending proposals. This is a concept supported by Congressman Brian Baird. It also appears state lawmakers recognize the need to provide more time to learn the details on budget proposals !
before action is taken.
The legislature finds that approval of the state budget is among the most important acts of the legislature in any year, and that the public is entitled to a reasonable opportunity to learn how public funds are proposed to be expended before bills making appropriations become law. The legislature further finds that public notice, dissemination of information, and informed analysis of proposed budgets is an essential requisite of transparent, accountable government.
Omnibus appropriations bills frequently have been acted on by the legislature in a manner that has afforded little opportunity for public review and information about proposed expenditures, or for members of the legislature to !
deliberate upon proposed appropriations in an informed and con!
scientious manner. The legislature finds this practice has weakened the performance of the legislature in its stewardship of public funds, and reduced public trust in government. The legislature finds that many other states, in their constitutions, statutes, or legislative rules, require an opportunity for public and legislative review of budget legislation.
The legislature therefore finds it in the public interest to provide for an appropriate period of public and legislative review of all omnibus appropriations bills before they are acted on by the legislature and submitted to the governor for approval . . . An omnibus operating, capital, or transportation appropriations bill, or proposed substitute, striking amendment, or conference committee report thereon, must be made publicly available to the members of the legislature and the public at least three calendar days before such a bill may be voted on by the senate or the house of representatives.
Today Governor Gregoire delivered her second inaugural address. The section of her speech on government reform was music to my ears:
And one thing we have to do together is reform state government to
bring it into the 21st century, and soon. At very basic levels,
businesses are struggling to reform, to change the way they do business because they
simply must to survive. And our business leaders tell me that American
companies, large and small, will emerge from this recession forever
We have to do the same. And that’s government reform.
This is our chance to reform state government to make it a more nimble and relevant partner in a new state economy.
Ladies and gentlemen, we need to reboot!
Over the decades, state government has evolved — layer upon layer upon
layer. But too much of what served the people well in 1940 or 1960 or
1990 does not serve the people well in the 21st century.
There are sacred cows standing in the way. There are political
roadblocks. But let’s step up to the challenge for the people who sent
us here. For example, we have some 470 separate boards and commissions
across numerous agencies.
Is there anybody in this chamber, or this state, who believes we need
any more than half of 470 boards and commissions to serve the people of
Washington? There are almost 60 involved with the Department of Social
and Health Services alone.
And that’s not the only issue we face. For instance, we have three
agencies managing natural resources, each with its own scientist
standing in the same Washington stream.
We need to reform, and we will.
We need a lean, nimble state government serving our people in the 21st century.
We know we can do it because in some cases we already have.
Today, almost 40 percent of license tabs are renewed online, saving hassles and gas.
We can close 26 licensing offices across the state while extending
hours of operation at the 10 most popular locations. We are finding new
ways to serve our customers. And customer service is what it’s all
Today, 18,000 full-time students at our community and technical
colleges are earning course credits online. It would take an additional
four community colleges to offer all those classes the old-fashioned
Thousands of people go online to check the balance on their food stamp
debit card. And more than half of small business owners are filing
their state taxes online.
I ask you, if we can serve our motorists, our businesses, our students
and our poor with 21st century technology, why can’t we serve all
citizens in ways that are more convenient for them, and cheaper and
more effective for government?
The answer is, we can. The answer is, we will!
I’m putting the finishing touches on a package of reforms for you to
consider this session. I’m asking you to act on them this year. It will
But the time has come to put our sacred cows out to pasture forever.
I can’t reform government all by myself. For starters, I’ve asked
Auditor Sonntag to help us figure out ways to sunset boards and
commissions and to help us establish a 21st century way of doing
I am also partnering with business and labor, state employees, citizens, and you, to get the job done.
We need to make sure we have a government for the 21st century so our
workers and businesses can compete with anyone in the world.
This proposal would repeal a 2007 law creating the state Sunshine Committee. According to the Attorney General's Office:
Voters approved the Public Disclosure Act by initiative in 1972. At the time, the act included only 10 exemptions from disclosure. Today, there are at least 300 exemptions (provided by Legislative staff).
Attorney General Rob McKenna requested a bill during the 2007 Legislative session to establish a Blue-Ribbon Committee to review all!
exemptions to the Public Disclosure Act on an annual basis. State Bill 5435 became law on July 22, 2007 creating the Public Records Exemptions Accountability Committee. The "Sunshine Committee" will make recommendations to repeal or amend exemptions to the Public Records Act.
According to SB 5119, however:
. . . the legislature finds the committee's review of exemptions has proven to be unproductive and, given the economic climate we are currently experiencing, it is an unnecessary and wasteful expenditure of time and resources. Additionally, the legislature finds that the committee has not acted efficiently or effectively in carrying out its mandated charge and has provided, at most, limited guidance to the legislature. Therefore the legislature concludes that the continuation of the public records exemptions accountability committee does not serve the public interest.
Here are the Washington Policy Center's recommendations for open government reforms from our Policy Guide:
Create a Public Records Ombudsman authorized to enforce the Public Records Act.
Clarify the use of the attorney client-privilege exemption.
Create criminal penalties for willful violation of the Public Records Act.
Require audio taping of executive sessions.
The legislature should make itself subject to the Public Records Act and Open Public Meetings Act.
Adopt a constitutional amendment placing the preamble of the Public Records Act into the constitution, and require a 60 percent vote of lawmakers to enact a new exemption from disclosure to take effect.
The 2009 Legislative Session is officially underway. If the first day is any indication, it appears property taxes will receive their fair share of attention with numerous bills introduced to reform the way property taxes are calculated and raised. One of the more interesting proposals is HB 1057.
Under the simple description of "Relating to ballot title information," HB 1057 reads (in-part):
If the referendum or question relates to a property tax levy, the ballot title must include a comparison of the aggregate financial impact between the taxing district's levy, if any, in the immediately preceding year and the current ballot, in both dollar and percentage change terms. Ballot questions under RCW 84.55.050 must include an estimate of the financial impact in the first year of the levy increase as compared to the taxing district's last levy, in bot!
h dollar and percentage terms.
Translation: Property tax ballot measures would need to provide context for the cost of passage.
Reading this bill I immediately thought of WPC's proposal for a tax transparency website to help provide citizens details on the various taxing districts they are subject to.
Although Governor Gregoire wasn't in Washington D.C. earlier this week to meet with President-elect Obama as speculated, it appears he has been paying attention to one of the Governor's priorities: GMAP (Government Management Accountability and Performance). According to Government Executive.com:
President-elect Barack Obama could name the first federal chief performance officer as early as Wednesday, and observers are urging him to choose a candidate with superior managerial skills and deep knowledge of the federal bureaucracy.
During his presidential campaign, Obama vowed to establish a "SWAT team" led by a CPO dedicated to working with agencies to improve results for federal programs and e!
liminate waste and inefficiency. The CPO will "work with federal agencies to set tough performance targets and hold managers responsible for progress," Obama said in September 2008, pledging to meet regularly with Cabinet officials to review their agencies' progress . . .
Robert Shea, former OMB associate director for administration and government performance, said he believes OMB has developed a strong foundation on which the Obama administration can build, but that establishing a CPO position in the White House might help overcome the challenges the agency faces in integrating performance initiatives with the programs they're designed to improve.
"Having a chief performance officer in the White House reporting to the president gives you an opportunity to make the people responsible for achieving the president's priorities pay more attention to the importance of management in achieving those goals," said Shea, now a dir!
ector with the global public sector of consultant firm Grant T!
Hopefully Congress and the state Legislature will see the potential to create their own performance teams and start to focus public hearings not on how much money an agency wants but instead on agency performance for current taxpayer investments.
Maybe, just maybe, our federal leaders will really embrace transparency this year. There is some positive news coming out of President-elect Obama's recent meeting with congressional leadership. According to ABC News:
Democratic and Republican sources tell ABC News that President-elect
Obama's meeting with the bipartisan congressional leadership of the
House and Senate went well with some quick agreement on the need for
expeditious action as well as oversight and transparency for the
pending, yet-to-be-drafted multibillion dollar stimulus package.
House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, argued that public
dissatisfaction with the Troubled Asset Relief Program money to help
stabilize the nation's financial systems and the way it was rammed
through the Congress demands more transparency and accountability with
the stimulus bill.
"I agree with you," the President-elect said, adding later that he
would "demand complete transparency and accountability in doing it." ·
House Minority Whip Eric Cantor, R-Vir., suggested said the bill
should be put on the Internet a week before Congress votes on it.
Mr. Obama smiled and said something along the lines of, "maybe if I
was better at faking it , I'd say, 'Great idea -- we'll take you up on
that.' But we've actually talked about this idea."
Obama turned it over to incoming White House chief of staff Rahm
Emanuel who essentially said they would do the Republicans one better.
They're planning a Google-like search function to show every program
funded by the stimulus package, whether it comes in under or
over-budget, whether it is meeting its intended purpose, and how many
jobs it is creating.
This is a fantastic idea and should be expanded to the full federal budget. In fact, it's not a bad idea for the state budget either and would be a natural complement to the new state budget website.
The Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission has made extensive efforts to improve the parks system and facilities through its Centennial 2013 plan. The audit found Parks is at risk of failing to achieve all of the goals it communicated to citizens in the Centennial 2013 Plan . . .
1. The Commission’s strategic plan lacks some key elements that can impact its achievement of its vision and goals.
2. The Commission needs to make improvements in governance to ensure it meets its vision, goals and objectives.
3. The Agency does not have a performance management system that
provides reliable information to assess its progress in meeting goals
and that allows it to make budget and operating decisions.
4. The Agency’s information technology systems do not support efficient operations.
5. The Agency has not realized the efficiency and economy in its
payroll and human resource processes that they expected to gain from
6. The Agency’s decentralized approach to governance and lack of
documentation can lead to practices and procedures that do not comply
with state law, agency policy, and do not promote the most efficient
and economical use of state resources.
On a positive note the Department of Revenue received its sixteenth-straight clean audit report today. Here is an excerpt from DOR's press release:
The annual audit issued today by State Auditor Brian Sonntag contained no findings, or problems with how the Department processed $18.2 billion in tax revenue annually, including 96 percent of all state general fund tax collections and all local sales taxes.
“This outstanding record is indicative of management’s interest in compliance with the laws and regulations applicable to your agency,” Sonntag wrote in his cover letter to the audit. “It’s important to give special recognition to agencies that consistently exhibit a commitment to solid accounting practices and systems of internal control.”
Sonntag said he appreciated the cooperation and assistance provided by Revenue staff!
as his auditors examined the agency’s extensive operations.
There will be a lot written and said about the Governor's budget in the coming days. We will hear a lot about drastic cuts and how the state will cease to function because of the Governor’s proposed changes. One point that may get lost in the debate but shouldn't is the fact that despite very real reductions in some programs, overall state spending will still be higher biennium over biennium if the Governor's budget is adopted.
That's right - the overall budget will still grow over previous cycles.
General Fund State Spending Growth (Dollars in Millions)
*As proposed by Governor 12/18/08
How is this possible? Despite the economic situation state revenues are still projected to grow biennium over biennium though at a slower rate than initially thought but it is growth nonetheless. This is in contrast to the 2001-03 budget cycle when revenues actually decreased from the 1999-01 levels.
General Fund State Revenue Growth (Dollars in Millions)
We'll have more to say about the Governor's budget after we've had time to read it line-by-line. Assuming the Governor effectively prioritized and selected those programs demonstrating the best results, she should fight hard for her proposal and not let the Legislature use it as a floor for budget discussions. She should also fight legislative efforts to raise taxes.
The Governor is absolutely correct when she said today: "No way to tax your way out of this problem. We have to live within our means."
The Examiner (Washington, D.C.) published our op-ed today on the need for President-elect Obama to make fundamental reforms to improve government transparency and accountability. I teamed up with Patrice McDermott, Director of OpenTheGovernment.org, to write the op-ed.
It is based on the national 21st Century Right to Know Coalition's recommendations to Obama published last month.
Even if secrecy was not on the rise, President-elect Obama would still face significant challenges in making government more transparent. At t!
he root of the problem is that government is still grounded in a 20th century (some might even say 19th century) approach to openness. Yet today’s interactive technologies make it possible to make quantum leaps forward in improving transparency.
Transparency is a powerful tool to demonstrate to the public that the government is spending our money wisely, that politicians are not in the pocket of lobbyists and specials interest groups, that government is operating in an accountable manner, and that decisions are made to ensure the safety and protection of all Americans. Effective transparency means that the public has access to accurate information in a timely manner. With today’s technology, it also means such information should be available in searchable formats, making it easier for commercial or government search engines to sift through mountains of material . . .
Obama has many transparency models he can pull from. For example, immediately upon!
taking office in January 2007, Florida Governor Charlie Crist!
issued an executive order on government ethics that created a new Office of Open Government; ordered training on public records, open meetings, and records retention; required comprehensive reviews of agencies’ performance in providing the public access; and directed agencies to use plain language to make information more understandable. The Crist order is a perfect example of laying out a policy vision for government transparency in a manner that conveys the importance of the issue.
Even though Washington State is ahead of the curve when it comes to open government, there are many recommendations from the 21st Century Right to Know Coalition's report in Chapters D & E that are
applicable for the state.
. . . so says Speaker of the House Frank Chopp. According to the Tri-City Herald:
House Speaker Frank Chopp said Washington's projected deficit may not be as bad as it looks.
a Seattle Democrat, was in the Tri-Cities on Friday for a forum with
the Columbia Basin Badger Club, a local group that grills politicians
and newsmakers on political issues without taking sides.
club members from the audience of about 75 asked Chopp about the state
budget, which officials estimated in November would face a $5.1 billion
shortfall in the upcoming biennium.
But Chopp said
the doom-and-gloom prophecies include estimates for $1 billion in
spending on new programs, which seems unlikely given the current
"In fact, we won't do that now," he said.
Some programs -- like the idea of offering all-day kindergarten -- will have to wait until the economy turns around, he said.
identified several ways he expects the Legislature will look at
slashing spending so it doesn't have to borrow money to balance the
Among those were cutting programs added to the budget in
recent years that aren't working, like a job search program through the
Employment Security Department that has only a 5 percent success rate.
"We're going to wipe that out," Chopp said.
Kudos to the Speaker for putting the budget discussion into context. It is also important to remember that state revenues are projected to be $855 million higher in the current budget than the last and $1.4 billion higher for the next budget.
General Fund State Revenue Growth (Dollars in Millions)
Source: Washington State Economic and Revenue Forecast Council
It will be very interesting to see what the Governor proposes this Thursday when she releases her budget. Last week WPC sent the Governor our suggestions for budget reform. Here is an excerpt from our letter:
Washington Policy Center would like to offer its assistance in light of the state’s budget outlook. We appreciate your commitment to balance the 2007-09 and 2009-11 budgets without raising new taxes and fees. We share your belief that this is a unique opportunity to rethink what the government does and how it delivers vital services to the public.
Our organization stands ready to help in any way that you find useful to bring about the fundamental budget ref!
orms in which you have expressed interest . . .
To offer constructive suggestions, we have enclosed our “Do not buy list,” which we adapted from your 2009-11 Priorities of Government report, as well as a list of eight reforms that we believe will help put the state on the path toward a sustainable performance-based budget.
I'm a little late on this post but last week the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Committee (JLARC) released a pre-audit report reviewing the state's 470 boards and commissions. According to the report: "At the beginning of this project, no single list identified all of Washington’s boards and commissions."
Thanks to the work of JLARC, there is now a good description of each board and commission starting on page 25 of the report. Included are details on when it was created, authorizing statute, costs, and number of meetings.
Another nugget from the report is Appendix 2 - Statute Summary:
The Legislature has declared that boards and commissions have been:
• Created in excessive numbers;
• Created without legislative review or input and without a!
n assessment of whether there is a resulting duplication of purpose or process;
• Duplicating duties of existing governmental entities, creating additional expense, and obscuring responsibility; and
• Difficult to control in terms of growth because of the many special interests involved.
Accordingly, the Legislature established a process found in Chapter 43.41 RCW to eliminate redundant and obsolete boards and commissions and to restrict the establishment of new boards and commissions (RCW 43.41.220).
The Legislature also finds that the “continued proliferation of both statutory and non-statutory groups of this nature without effective, periodic review of existing groups can result in wasteful duplication of effort, fragmentation of administrative authority, lack of accountability, plus an excessive and frequently hidden financial burden on the state.” (RCW 43.88.500)
Furthermore, the Legislature finds t!
hat a lack of current and reliable information about boards an!
d commissions hinders the effectiveness of legislative oversight and review these entities. Therefore, the Legislature has created a central clearinghouse in the Office of Financial Management (RCW 43.88.500).
It looks like the need for each of the state's 470 boards and commissions should also be part of the current budget savings debate.
The new searchable budget website authorized by SB 6818
(Promoting transparency in state expenditures) will be launched tomorrow by the Legislative Evaluation and Accountability Program
Committee (LEAP) and the Office of Financial Management (OFM). SB 6818
was based on Washington Policy Center’s (WPC) recommendation for the
state to adopt a searchable budget website. It passed the legislature
unanimously in 2008.
searchable budget website provides an unprecedented level of
interactivity allowing users to create their own budget reports to
compare state spending over time.
This website is a great resource for citizens regardless of the level of their budget expertise. From the green eyeshade policy analyst to the casual observer, users
can create a customized look at how our tax dollars are being spent.
Included on the website are details on:
state expenditures by fund or account
expenditures by agency, program, and subprogram
state revenues by source
state expenditures by budget object and subobject
state agency workloads, caseloads, and performance measurements.
budget website also links to performance information on the Government
Management Accountability and Performance (GMAP) website and OFM’s
website on personal services’ contracts.
To help build on
the success of Fiscal.wa.gov, WPC sent letters to GMAP and OFM
encouraging these agencies to enhance their websites to mirror the
functionality of the new budget website. This effort could also serve
as a template for creation of a tax transparency website. Earlier this
year WPC released a proposal for a ‘Taxation Disclosure Act’ similar to
We are hopeful that state officials will
build on the success of the new budget website and also make details on
taxation more transparent to help citizens learn more about what
government decisions mean to their pocketbooks.
adopted by state officials, the tax transparency proposal 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 which officials are responsible for which
parts of it.
One change worth discussing, however, is to focus the program more on state versus local performance audits. Local performance audits add good value (example Port of Seattle audit). After all taxpayers savings are taxpayer savings whether state or local but the bigger bang for the buck may be realized by digging deeper into state programs and spending.
What shouldn't be on the table, however, is eliminating performance audits. Now more than ever the state needs to be looking at ways to improve the economy, efficiency and effectiveness of every tax dollar spent.
Jason Mercier is the 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.