The Department of Revenue (DOR) has responded favorably to our proposal for creation of an online searchable database of all tax rates in the state. According to a spokesperson for DOR (in-part):
"The Department of Revenue considers the web to be a great way to communicate with taxpayers and the public, and it supports the concept of a searchable database of state and local taxes by location. In fact, it already has been moving toward that goal as resources permit."
Along with DOR, we've already heard from other state policymakers interested in moving forward with this reform. Hopefully understanding your state and local tax burden will soon be a click away.
"The Legislature and the governor recently moved the state into a new era of budget transparency with a law creating a searchable Web site detailing state spending. The state should advance its impressive digital empowerment of the public by giving everyone access to the same type of information about his or her state and local taxes.
The Washington Policy Center last week unveiled a proposal to create 'a tax transparency Web site' allowing individuals and businesses to figure out just how much they are paying in all local and state taxes . . .
The center's Jason Mercier, who wrote the new proposal and helped inspire the spending Web site, called complete, searchable online taxing a 'natural next step' for the state in its efforts to be more transparent about financial issues. Like the spending idea, this plan ought to have bipartisan appeal. Whether one tends to think we have too few services or too many taxes, there is broad common ground on the value of accurate information for making good decisions . . .
Lawmakers and the governor should move quickly next year to take another big step forward in our high-tech state's use of technology to improve public understanding of the public's business."
Many thanks to the Department of Revenue for sending over a table categorizing the state's 1,783 taxing districts. Want to know which ones you owe taxes to and how much that means to your total tax burden?
Yesterday we proposed the creation of an online searchable database of all tax rates for each taxing district to help citizens and business-owners answer this question.
Have you ever wondered what your total state and local tax bill is but struggled to calculate government’s take of your income?
So have we.
This is why we think it is time for creation of an online searchable database of all tax rates for each taxing district to help citizens and business-owners answer this question. To help facilitate this reform we've drafted model language for what we call the "Taxation Disclosure Act."
The language is modeled after this year's successful adoption of Washington Policy Center’s recommendation for the state to adopt a searchable budget website.
We are hopeful that policy makers will see this proposal as an opportunity to make taxation more transparent and help citizens learn more about what government decisions mean to their pocket books.
Click here to view WPC's "Taxation Disclosure Act."
State union members took to the streets today in Olympia to demand a pay raise. The unions are currently in negotiations with Governor Gregoire on the state's 2009-11 collective bargaining agreement. Oddly enough, The Olympianquotes some of the union members chanting: "Dino Rossi has got to go!"
Last week the unions were encouraging members to "tell the Governor State Employees are hurting and need a fair contract!"
"Resist political pressure from public sector unions Public sector unions occupy a unique position within our governing system. They represent one part of government (public employees) which is organized to lobby another part of government (the legislature).
Employers and unions in the private sector operate under the unyielding discipline of the market. Union leaders know that if their demands cause the company to go under, everybody loses. Government, however, cannot go out of business. There is no natural limit to the demands that public union leaders can make on the treasury, especially since each expansion of government spending generally increases the amount of monthly dues paid to the union.
In the private sector, unions negotiate directly with the owners and managers of a company. If company stockholders are unhappy, they can take their investment elsewhere. In government, the “owners” are the taxpayers. They have no involvement in negotiating with public sector unions, and they also have no choice about paying for whatever conditions, salary or benefits the legislature has agreed to provide.
Public employees should receive fair compensation for the work they do, and it is in the public interest to attract hard working, talented people to public service. But government is about more than providing high paying jobs and generous benefits. If a government program or service no longer makes sense, policymakers who respect taxpayers should end it, and devote the savings to effective programs, or to reducing the tax burden on citizens."
The Yakima Herald has joined with The Everett Herald in endorsing our recommendations to restructure statewide elected policy offices. From Sunday's Yakima Herald (in-part):
"It was a timely coincidence that on the same day Gregoire issued her freeze order, the Washington Policy Center released a policy brief touting the advantages of electing fewer state agency heads. In the place of nine separate elections, the center advocates electing the governor and lieutenant governor as a team and also leaving attorney general, state treasurer and state auditor on the ballot. The rest would become Cabinet positions appointed by the governor.
There are a couple of good arguments advanced for such reorganization. The most visible in this election year is that a cluttered statewide ballot would be shortened in the future.
Take a look at this year's primary election. The gubernatorial election aside, the other eight statewide elected positions on the ballot feature a total of 28 candidates in the Aug. 19 primary. They will be winnowed to 16 for the Nov. 4 general election, but that's still a lot of people to get to know in casting an informed ballot for someone who will head a state agency.
The other advantage of making more of them appointive Cabinet positions, the policy center notes, is that there is actually more accountability when agency heads are changed with election of a new governor."
Here isThe Everett Herald editorial from last week.
Now Walker is taking his message of fiscal reform to a big screen near you. Here is an email he sent last week about this effort:
Some of you have heard me mention our forthcoming feature documentary, "I.O.U.S.A." A few of you may have even had the chance to see an early version of it. The film tells the story of America's large and growing fiscal challenge, how the richest country in the world came to be in the position we are in today, and what could happen to us if we don't do something about it soon. It covers our nation's four key deficits: budget, savings, balance of payments/trade, and worst of all, our leadership deficit.
The film is fact-based, nonpartisan and nonideological, and it features a number of candid appearances, including by Warren Buffett, Alan Greenspan, Paul Volcker, my Foundation's chairman Pete Peterson, Sens. Kent Conrad and Judd Gregg, former Treasury Secretaries Paul O'Neill and Robert Rubin, former CBO chief Alice Rivlin, Rep. Ron Paul, my Fiscal Wake-Up Tour colleague Bob Bixby, and myself.
For one night, August 21, the film will show in about 400 theaters around the country -- with our own special version of a "bonus track!" Immediately following the movie itself, audience members everywhere will be treated to a 45-minute town meeting on the US economy with Buffett, Bill Novelli of AARP, Bill Niskanen of the CATO Institute, Pete and I. We'll be coming to you live by satellite from Omaha. You can find out more about this very special town meeting, submit your own question to the participants, and locate the showing in a theater near you at www.IOUSAtheMovie.com.
Starting on August 22, the film will run in 10 cities for at least one week. Those cities also are listed on the movie's website: www.IOUSAtheMovie.com.
I hope you will take the time -- and take your family and friends! -- to see the film. It's as clear an explanation of the four deficits threatening our economic future as you'll find anywhere. Nothing is more important than educating the public about this looming crisis and building the political will in Washington to enact change.
Anything that you're willing to do to spread the word about the film would be greatly appreciated.
UPDATED (10:32 a.m. 8/11): After consulting with OFM, $356 million has been added to Washington's FY 2007 expenditures.
After scouring through financial reports for all 50 states, it's painfully clear why no one else has attempted to do a side by side comparison of spending increases for each state - it's like trying to compare the DNA of siblings. You'd think they'd be comparable but they aren't even close.
That said, I think I've put together the closest thing possible to an apples to apples comparison of each states' total budget growth (all expenditures). Unfortunately, this means I had to stop with FY 2007 since that is the last year available for state Comprehensive Annual Financial Reports (CAFR).
Using the "Total Primary Government Expenses" line item from each state's FY 2007 CAFR, here is the table I came up with (dollars in thousands):
I called West Virginia to see how they were able to stay essentially flat in spending. The answer: In 2005 they fully privatized their Workers Compensation program.
One of the reasons why the spending increase percentage was so high for Louisiana and Mississippi is related to Hurricane Katrina relief.
A caution for Washington, for 2007 there is a disclaimer that says "health insurance programs is zero starting in 2007 due to fund reclassifications." In 2006, that spending was estimated at $1.2 billion. I’m waiting to hear back from OFM to learn if that spending has been captured elsewhere to see if the comparison with 2003's spending is apples to apples. I'll update the table if necessary.
Judging from the budget outlooks for the states, spending has been outpacing revenue resulting in the current spending deficits being reported.
"Make no mistake; red ink stained the budget long before the economy slowed. In March 2007, the members of the Coalition of Washington Business Organizations (COWBO) wrote to state senators:
' ... the state cannot continue to spend more than it takes in. Increasing spending 15 percent while revenues grow 7.5 percent is not responsible. Coming on the heels of a 2005-2007 budget that increased Near General Fund State spending 13 percent, this budget virtually guarantees substantial shortfalls in the foreseeable future.'"
"The WPC suggests lightening voters' load by reducing the number of statewide elected policy posts to five, and having candidates for governor and lieutenant governor run jointly, just as those who run for president and vice president do. Voters would also still elect the attorney general, treasurer and auditor, "watchdog" offices that should be made nonpartisan, because voters don't expect politics to influence how they're run. (Voters would also still elect judges.)
The other currently elected offices would be appointed by the governor, just as the heads of Cabinet-level offices are now.
Generally, we like the idea. Why, for instance, does it make sense to elect the lands commissioner, but not the secretary of transportation? Why elect a state schools superintendent when key policy issues regarding education are decided in the legislative process?"
Click here to read our full report recommending the changes.
In response to unsustainable budget increases and the then largest tax increase in state history, voters in 1993 adopted Initiative 601 (I-601) to restrict the growth of the budget and place restrictions on tax increases.
Reviewing state spending increases before and after I-601 took effect, it is clear the measure was successful in limiting the size of state spending increases. This is true at least until the law was amended by the legislature in recent years, changing the calculation of the spending limit established by the voters in 1993. The table below shows a 30-year trend in state spending increases.
Here's another way to look at state spending increases since 1980.
Unfortunately, little is left of I-601's original taxpayer protections. In fact, the Senate Majority Leader is currently suing to have the tax restrictions on the books since 1993 thrown out by the State Supreme Court.
Since state officials have shown little desire to leave I-601 in place, it may be time to push for a constitutional amendment to limit the growth of spending to inflation and population growth. Reasonable budget limits similar to those of Initiative 601, but as part of the state constitution, would protect taxpayers and bring greater discipline to public finances. The recent adoption of the constitutional rainy-day amendment could serve as the model for putting I-601 into the constitution.
Back to state spending increases, how does Washington compare nationally? Great question.
In the coming days we'll post a blog comparing Washington's spending increases since 2003 with the rest of the nation to see how we rank.
Just in time for the 2008 Primary we've released a report recommending a change in the number of statewide elected policy offices.
On August 19, 2008, Washingtonians will vote in the state’s first top-two primary election. Not counting local races, voters will be asked to decide which candidates will advance to the November ballot for nine separate statewide offices. These offices are:
1. Governor; 2. Lieutenant Governor; 3. Secretary of State; 4. Treasurer; 5. State Auditor; 6. Attorney General; 7. Superintendent of Public Instruction; 8. Commissioner of Public Lands and; 9. Insurance Commissioner.
Other than the nine elected positions, all other senior officials in the executive branch are appointed by the governor. They make up the governor’s cabinet and include many key positions, many as important as some elected offices.
The Secretary of State, Superintendent of Public Instruction, Commissioner of Public Lands and Insurance Commissioner are policy offices, much like those currently in the governor’s appointed cabinet. Direct election of these offices does not necessarily create greater public accountability, because most Washingtonians don’t know the names of these officials.
The Treasurer, Auditor and Attorney General, however, carry out an oversight role, working to ensure government agencies are following the law. It is because of this distinction that independent election of these offices makes sense.
As “watchdog officials,” it makes sense for the Treasurer, Auditor and Attorney General (if provided enforcement power) to function as nonpartisan offices as is the case for State Supreme Court Justices. In fact, bills have been introduced over the past few years at the request of the State Treasurer to make that office subject to nonpartisan elections.
According to State Auditor Brian Sonntag: “Citizens certainly don’t expect partisanship in an office like this. The work of the State Auditor is about government accountability and transparency, not politics. Our audits are – and should be – independent and fair without even a hint of bias.”
With fewer statewide elected offices, voters would choose the five highest state officials in four elections, as follows:
1. Governor and Lieutenant Governor 2. Attorney General 3. State Treasurer 4. State Auditor
If problems arise with public education, insurance regulation, or management of public lands, voters would know that the solution lies with the governor, who could change the top managers of these policy areas at any time. If the governor fails to use his or her appointment powers to improve the management of these departments, voters could take that failure into account at election time.
Reducing the number of statewide elected offices would shorten the length of the ballot and more importantly, focus public accountability in a way that people can understand and remember. This would increase accountability both during a governor’s term and in election years when voters are assessing candidates for the state’s top offices.
The U.S Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report yesterday focusing on the federal government's use of performance management. According to the report:
"According to GAO surveys, since 1997 significantly more federal managers report having performance measures for the programs they manage. However, despite having more performance measures available, federal managers’ reported use of performance information in management decision making has not changed significantly, as shown below.
For the collection of performance information to be considered more than meaningless paperwork exercises, it must be useful to and used by federal decision makers at all levels—including Congress. To reach this state, GAO believes that the next administration should promote three key practices that we have identified in our work over the last 10 years:
(1) demonstrate leadership commitment to results-oriented management;
(2) develop a clear 'line of sight' linking individual performance with organizational results; and
(3) build agency capacity to collect and use performance information.
In addition to encouraging agencies to employ these practices, the next administration should: (1) adopt a more strategic and crosscutting approach to overseeing governmentwide performance; (2) improve the relevance of performance information to Congress; and (3) build agency confidence in assessments for use in decision making."
These conclusions are very important for Washington State as well. We've made progress towards focusing on performance results with the adoption of independent performance audit authority for the State Auditor and monitoring agency performance with the GMAP reform. The key now is to put these tools together and to start budgeting based on the performance outcomes identified and holding government accountable to delivering those results.
The Olympian this morning highlights the ongoing problem with forcing state employees to join a private organization as a condition of employment with the state. According to the article:
"The largest state employee union is suing up to 1,900 of the workers it represents for unpaid dues.
'We pursued those folks after many years of trying to persuade them to pay their fair share,' said Tim Welch, spokesman for the Washington Federation of State Employees.
The lawsuits are the latest chapter in an ongoing dispute over mandatory union dues for state workers, which began in 2005 as part of the first contracts to set pay and benefits.
The lawsuits have been filed for months, but a conservative think tank recently found the total number of sued workers listed in the meeting minutes of a federation local.
The union represents about 40,000 state government and college employees. Dues are a percentage of salary, up to $76.50 a month . . .
The union asked the state to fire workers for not paying dues in 2006, turning in a list of 779 potential candidates. Just six workers were terminated before a lawsuit and public protest by the workers prompted the union to drop its demands."
There is nothing wrong with a private organization suing its voluntary members if it so chooses (though it may reduce its membership). The problem with this situation is the fact state workers who don't want to join this private organization are being forced to by their employer in order to keep their job.
As an employer the state should not be forcing individuals to join selected private organizations. However, if such a requirement does exist, the unions should be treated as public entities and be subject to all applicable laws and disclosure requirements. State workers and the public should be fully informed about union activity.
Also, automatic deduction from state worker paychecks should be ended. If government union leaders collected voluntary dues from their members, instead of resorting to mandatory automatic payroll deductions, they would be more responsive to their members’ needs and views. It would also encourage union officials to be more transparent and accountable for how they spend their members’ money.
If we are going to continue the current union/state contract scheme the legislature should reassert its authority over state employment policy to ensure greater accountability and transparency, and it should advance improvements that reduce costs while rewarding the excellent work of state employees. At a minimum state collective bargaining contracts should not be negotiated in secret. Taxpayers are ultimately responsible for funding these agreements. They should be allowed to monitor the negotiation process and to hold state officials accountable for their actions.
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.