Washington Policy Blog

Obama to Ron Sims: Everything is in your jurisdiction

November 16, 2009 in Blog

On Sunday, the Washington Post reported on the federal government possibly taking over yet another industry, local rail systems.

Under the proposal, the U.S. Department of Transportation would do for
transit what it does for airlines and Amtrak: set and enforce federal
regulations to ensure that millions of passengers get to their
destinations safely.

The proposal to impose federal oversight over local rail agencies is another example of a growing trend of the Obama administration to centralize power in Washington D.C. This deliberate concentration of power has been seen most dramatically in the auto, health care and financial industries. And with the upcoming Surface Transportation Reauthorization Act, Dr. Ron Utt from the Heritage Foundation details how the federal government will also centralize even greater authority over transportation policies.

In October, Ron Sims, Deputy Secretary of Department of Housing and Urban Development spoke at Cascadia's Beyond Oil Conference at Microsoft and gave us a glimpse of his role in this massive centralization!
of power. He began his remarks with this introduction:

“I have an interesting Job. I have both the responsibilities for day to day operations of the Department of Housing and Urban Development and then two major policy initiatives. I’m called the new breed of deputy secretaries. And one of those is “sustainability” and “livability.” It’s really interesting when you talk about how to transform an agency because we were told by the President that we could not exist in silos anymore. That it would be unacceptable for us to go to any meeting and say the problem we face in any major urban area or even the rural areas across the country was not our jurisdictional issue. That would not be a good meeting. There would not be a positive result. The President at that moment would thank you for your service and replace you.” (here is the video)

Centralization of power at the federal level means local officials have less control over policy decisions. It also means the federal government has an ever increasing role in our lives. And I think we all get a little anxious when federal officials claim that every issue is now within their jurisdiction.

Washington State's eligibility for federal Race to the Top education grants

November 13, 2009 in Blog

  This week the federal government released its rules and scoring system for states competing for a portion of federal Race to the Top funds. Today's Seattle Times front page article discusses Washington's  education policies which are likely to prevent Washington from winning these funds.  These include a ban  charter schools and a ban on the state takeover of persistently failing schools.

The Seattle Times article also reveals that, in order to qualify for these funds, the state will be attempting to describe its National Board Certification for teachers as a performance pay system.  This program does not involve evaluating the individual performance of teachers for their effectiveness in the classroom.  Rather, National Board Certification gives bonuses to teachers willing to take another set of classes and/or willing to work in inner-city classrooms. 

Here is the Executive Summary of the regulations, which explains the Department of Education's point system for scoring applications from the states. Here is that point system:Racetoppointssystem 
  

Small businesses rank top policy priorities

November 13, 2009 in Blog

Small business owners, legislators, and policymakers from all over Washington gathered in SeaTac this past Tuesday to discuss the state's business climate at WPC's 2009 Statewide Small Business Conference. During several interactive issue breakout sessions, business owners suggested and discussed solutions to improve the climate for small businesses in Washington. This was the fourth statewide small business conference hosted by WPC since 2003.

Oregon's Green Job Experience: Much Green, Few Jobs

November 12, 2009 in Blog

With jobs high on the agenda for the public, environmental activists have made the creation of "green jobs" a central talking point in their campaign to justify government expenditures and environmental regulation. Politicians have jumped on this message as well. For instance, WPC was attacked by Dow Constantine in the recent King County Executive race because, he claimed, we "oppose green jobs."

Of course what we oppose are policies that kill two jobs for every one created in a politically favored industry. That is the path to higher unemployment and reduced prosperity. By way of contrast we favor innovation tax cuts that strengthen job growth, green or otherwise, while promoting energy efficient technologies.

Now, there is more evidence from the other side of the Columbia that the strategy favored by environmental activists and "green" politicians is costly and ineffective.

Writing about Oregon's effort to create green jobs, the Longview Daily News today highlights the costs of their government subsidies:

No state has been a more vigorous advocate of green economy — or, as it turns out, invested more in attracting renewable energy companies — than Oregon. ... [The Oregonian] reported that the state’s Business Energy Tax Credit (BETC) cost taxpayers $68 million in 2007-09 — more than 40 times what legislators had been told it would cost. And that’s only for starters. The cost of BETC subsidies for green projects is estimated to climb to $167 in 2009-11, and to $243 million in 2011-13.

We've seen this before with Cash for Clunkers and other programs. Programs that offer free government money end up finding many takers. The problem is that the results are not in line with the costs. The Oregonian highlighted some costly failures:

Among them was the Clatskanie ethanol plant which eventually went bankrupt and ceased operations. It received $12 million in tax subsidies and a $20 million energy loan from the state. Another wasteful example cited in the report was a wind energy project that was handed tax credits totaling $40 million. [The Oregonian] found that this project will generate less electricity than projects that received credits totaling around $4 million.

The question is, have these projects generated jobs? Oregon's unemployment rate is currently 11.5 percent. More than 1.3 percent higher than the national average and 2.2 percent higher than Washington's rate.

Given the poor results from these subsidies, imagine what could be done with that funding that would truly make a difference.

The results are worthy of Linda Richman: "green" jobs are neither green, nor jobs...discuss.

Seattle opposes PSRC's preferred Transportation 2040 alternative

November 12, 2009 in Blog

During the PSRC's Transportation Policy Board (TPB) meeting this morning, the city of Seattle expressed opposition to the Transportation 2040 plan and asked for an extra year to work out their issues. The prepared statement was read by a city representative and signed by Mayor Greg Nickels and all nine councilmembers.

Despite Seattle's protest, the TPB voted to move the preferred alternative forward and directed staff to prepare an EIS.

Another interesting factoid (and probably Seattle's reason for opposition) is the preferred Transportation 2040 alternative does not achieve the state's targets for reducing emissions or reducing how much people drive, even with PSRC's assumption of more than 160 miles of light rail.

This finding is similar to the conclusions of a new TRB study called Driving and the Built Environment, The Effect of Compact Development on Motor!

Is Plug-in Worth a Plug Nickel?

November 12, 2009 in Blog

A major part of Washington's strategy to reduce CO2 emissions is the promotion of plug-in hybrid vehicles that would run on battery power for many trips but would use a gas-powered engine when needed. It is argued that these vehicles will significantly reduce carbon emissions. A study that came across my screen today calls this into doubt.

A study advocating hydrogen vehicles includes the graph below. Of course hydrogen vehicles come out looking good. There are many problems with hydrogen vehicles that cannot be captured in this graph, notably that the cost of vehicles is high and the refelling infrastructure is nonexistent.

What interested me most is the comparison between the projections of carbon emissions between gasoline-powered hybrids and plug-in hybrids. Plug-in hybrids emit only four percent less CO2 than regular hybrids. This is a remarkably small return on investment of the state's money to build plug in stations across the state. For instance, diesel hybrids are projected to emit less CO2 than plug-in hybrids.

These numbers are national and the numbers for Washington are likely to be different because so much of our energy is carbon-free hydro and nuclear. We should remember, however, that going to plug-ins would increase demand for energy and we aren't likely to build many new dams or even nuclear power any time soon.

Plug-ins are one of those technologies politicians have latched onto in an effort to demonstrate "greenness" to the public. As is common, however, what is politically popular isn't always environmentally friendly and spending money on inferior technologies misses opportunities to make real improvements in energy efficiency.

CO2 Emissions Comparison  

Supreme Court says school funding allocation meets constitution’s ample provision requirement

November 12, 2009 in Blog

In a landmark ruling today, Washington’s Supreme Court ruled unanimously that the legislature’s method of funding public schools is constitutional under the “ample provision” requirement of the state constitution.

The ruling bolsters the research findings of Washington Policy Center showing that public schools receive ample funding, as the constitution requires.

  • Washington taxpayers are generous, providing $9 billion a year to educate about one million students.
  • Per student funding is $10,274 a year, the highest level in state history.
  • The average teacher salary is $72,000 in pay and benefits for a nine-month work year.  The average salary for other workers is about $42,000.
  • With the trend toward smaller families, there are proportionately fewer children in school today than in the past, with more taxpayers than ever paying into the system.
  • Local voters approve most supplemental levies, and the legislature recently enacted rules making it easier for school levies to pass.

Much of this generous funding, however, is diverted by central district offices long before it has a chance to help children in class.

  • Only 59 cents of every education dollar reaches the classroom.
  • School principals control only 5% of their budget.
  • The majority of school district employees are not classroom teachers.
  • One third of public high school students fail to graduate.

At the same time, private schools in Washington often spend less money per student, pay their teacher less, and produce better learning outcomes for children.  The key difference is that state law authorizes private school principals to control nearly 100% of their budget, pay bonuses to retain the best teachers, fire poor-performing teachers, and hire any qualified applicant as a classroom teacher.  Giving public school principals the same authority would lead to better use of the ample funding school districts receive and would provide improved learning opportunities for all students.

Washington State a laggard in educational innovation

November 11, 2009 in Blog

According to the Leaders and Laggards report from the Center for American Progress, Washington ranks  37th in the nation in educational innovation.  Washington earned the following grades:

D in School Management

C in School Finance

B in Staffing:  Hiring and Evalution

D in Staffing: Removing Ineffective Teachers

B in Data

B in Pipeline to Postsecondary

D in Technology

PSRC Transportation 2040 plan underestimates vanpool potential

November 11, 2009 in Blog

Vnapool Currently, the Puget Sound Regional Council's (PSRC) update to its long-range plan, Transportation  2040, estimates vanpools will grow to
about 4,300 by 2040. This is great news.

But our vanpool research shows with some
marketing and operational changes, there could be nearly 12,000 vanpools by
2030! This equals about 192,000 trips per day. This means vanpools have the
potential to carry 20 percent more riders for $20 billion less than Sound
Transit’s light rail expansion. The impact on reducing CO2 emissions and SOV
use is also more significant than any other transit mode, and vanpools do not require social engineering or forcing compact development.

I've met with PSRC staff and plan to present these findings to the Transportation Policy Board. I think the numbers are compelling enough for PSRC to reexamine their vanpool strategies.

10 year update on smart growth: it doesn't work

November 11, 2009 in Blog

From Ken Orski (I don't see this linked on his website yet, but I'm sure it will be shortly)

In a
revealing article that should be required reading for smart growth advocates
everywhere, Gerrit-Jan Knaap, executive director of the National Center for
Smart Growth Research and Education at the University of Maryland, offers a
sobering appraisal of Maryland’s smart growth policy. Writing in the current
issue of the Journal of the American Planning Association, he concludes that
there is little evidence after a full decade, that Maryland's smart growth laws
have had any effect on residential development patterns.
Ironically, the Smart
Growth Center, was founded by the University of Maryland (and supported by
former Governor Parris N. Glendening) to advance research and spread
awareness about the very same policy whose effectiveness the Center is now
questioning.

National coverage of WPC vanpool study

November 5, 2009 in Blog

From the National Center for Policy Analysis:

VANPOOLS
IN THE PUGET SOUND REGION

OFM releases 2009 report on state boards and commissions

November 4, 2009 in Blog

The Office of Financial Management (OFM) has published its 2009 Boards and Commissions Report. According to OFM:

"The 2009 BOARDS AND COMMISSIONS REPORT provides basic information about boards, commissions, and committees in state government. State law requires the report to assist in promoting legislative and executive oversight of these organizations. This is the sixteenth biennial edition of the publication.

The information in this report covers the period from July 1, 2007, through June 30, 2009. During the 2009 Legislative Session a number of boards were eliminated or consolidated by executive order or legislation. A list of those boards is attached and, if the board submitted a report for this period, a note is also included on that report .!
. .

In 2009, 449 boards, commissions, councils, committees, and similar groups in state government provided information for this report."

Boards and Commissions were required to provide the following information for the report:

  • Year created
  • Number of members
  • Number of meetings held
  • Legal authorization
  • Appointing authority
  • Summary of primary responsibilities
  • Compensation
  • Operating costs
  • Fund source

Here are the details for each state board and commission.

Putting the principal in charge improves graduation rates and raises student achievement

November 4, 2009 in Blog

As Washington State's legislators are distracted by the competition for federal Race to the Top funds, they ignore genuine, systemic reform in school districts across the country. These districts are putting their principals in charge so they can support their teachers.  Principals in charge of their budgets reallocate resources and schedules so that teachers are not inundated with students.  Teachers can then support their students, who then perform better on tests and graduate at higher rates.

Election week begins

November 3, 2009 in Blog

For most voters across the nation today is Election Day. In Washington State, however, today marks the beginning of election week(s) and the possibility for some close races, election month.

In most states mail-in ballots must either be received by Election Day or must be dropped off before the polls close. Washington, however, only requires that a ballot be postmarked by Election Day. This policy unnecessarily complicates the tabulation of votes and can leave the results of close races a mystery for weeks.

With the state's ongoing move to close all poll locations, it is time to require all ballots be received on Election Day. This is exactly what Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho, Kansas, Maine, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Dakota, Vermont, Wisconsin, and Wyoming require. North Carolina goes a step further requiring absentee ballots to be returned by 5 p.m. the day before the elec!
tion.

Secretary of State Sam Reed supports requiring mail in ballots to be turned in by Election Day. Speaking on his behalf, Elections Director Nick Handy told the Associated Press last year “We believe it builds greater trust and confidence in the system.”

Despite having the Secretary of State’s support, bills introduced in the past to make this change have died. This year the Secretary of State's request bills (SB 5631 and HB 1623) were not acted on by the Legislature. Here is the bill summary for HB 1623:

"Absentee ballots must be received by the county auditor by 8:00 p.m. on the day of the primary or election in order to be valid. For out-of-state voters, overseas voters and service voters, the d!
ate on the return envelope to which the voter attested must be!
no later than the day of the primary or election in order for the ballot to be valid.

The tabulation of absentee ballots may commence at 8:00 a.m. on the Monday immediately before the day of the primary or election. The tabulation results must be held in secrecy until after 8:00 p.m. on the day of the primary or election."

This election reform should be considered again next year.

Although the numbers will change over the coming days, election results will be available on the Secretary of State's website starting at 8 p.m.

State Auditor's Office reviews its performance measures

November 2, 2009 in Blog

The State Auditor's Office (SAO) acts as the eyes of citizens to help ensure state and local governments are operating in an accountable, transparent and effective manner. To help lead by example, staff at SAO met last week to focus on strategic planning and performance measures planning session for the agency.

I had the opportunity to sit in on the sessions and was very impressed with the direction SAO is heading.

Earlier this year the Office of Financial Management (OFM) issued an assessment of the performance measures SAO was using for its activities. OFM said:

With two possible exceptions, the current performance measures in the Performance Measure Tracking System (PMT) should be replaced with outcome/result measures that are more relevant to a budget/policy development audience. In particular, survey results a!
nd the cost of performing the audits in relation to the size of the audited entity, are better as internal performance management perspectives. This assessment offers suggestions about the types of measurement topics that would tell a more complete and compelling performance story.

SAO responded by holding the performance measure planning sessions last week. Here is some of the information discussed at that session:

A performance measure is a quantifiable expression of the amount, cost, or result of activities that indicate how well, and at what level, services are provided.

Performance measures provide a snapshot of current performance capabilities and track whether actual performance is getting better, !
staying the same, or getting worse over time.

What !
isn’t a performance measure?

  • Statements of what you intend to do or how you intend to do it. (Goals, objectives, and strategies)
  • Performance questions that can be answered with a “yes” or “no”
  • A timeline of when something will be accomplished
  • The responses from a survey

What are the Attributes of Good Performance Measures?
  • Relevance - Useful to an external audience of stakeholders to assess the level of accomplishment
  • Understandability - Clear, concise, and easy for a non-expert to understand
  • Comparability - Do the data, targets, and footnotes provide the reader with enough context to tell whether performance is getting better, worse, or staying the same?
  • Timeliness - Is the data current and reported frequently enough to be of value in assessing accountability and making decisions?
  • Consistency - Is the data collection method standardized and is the operational definition for data calculations adhered to?
  • Reliability - Is the information verifiable, free from bias, and a faithful representation of what it purports to represent?
  • Performance - Is actual performance in reference to the stated targets getting better, worse, or staying the same over time?

All agencies (state and local) should undergo the same type of self-reflection as SAO to help improve their performance measures. Doing so will allow elected officials to have access to meaningful performance data to help guide budget decisions.