Washington Policy Blog

Environment gets plenty of $, just need to set priorities

March 25, 2010 in Blog

According to The News Tribune, the Tacoma Public Utility Board was expected to adopt a plan that would spend between $185 million and $237 million, allowing the Utility to better treat wastewater for cryptosporidium and by products of chlorination.

So what’s the catch?  As reported by The News Tribune:

“The nonexistent problem is water contamination from cryptosporidium and byproducts of chlorination, which the new filtration system would eliminate. There’s no evidence that contamination is a genuine health issue for any of Tacoma Water’s customers in the South Sound.”

Or more simply put, the Tacoma Utility doesn’t have a problem with cryptosporidium or by-products of chlorination.

So why would the Utility spend hundreds of millions of dollars of ratepayers money on a non-existent problem?  Because:

“…the Environmental Protection Agency… has been enforcing tighter and tighter clean water standards over the years, and it has increasingly focused on cryptosporidium and some other potentially problematic phenomena – such as fecal coliform counts.

Now the feds are more or less ordering Tacoma Public Utilities and the Tacoma City Council to eliminate any chance of cryptosporidium contamination. The status quo is not an option, and water utilities in other jurisdictions have battled the requirement in court and lost.”

This punitive action by the EPA exemplifies one of the problems of environmental policies today.  The amount of resources available for environmental issues is finite.  But often we see policymakers allocating resources for politically favored programs (see “The Environmental Costs of the Governor’s Climate Executive Order”), ignoring solutions that would have a greater and immediate environmental impact.

Imagine if policymakers used the same valuable resources on real issues instead of non-existing ones.  They could:

Policymakers should take a step back and prioritize environmental projects.  Until they do both the environment and taxpayers will pay too steep a price.

U.S. House members launch transparency caucus

March 25, 2010 in Blog

Rarely does a good idea come first from Washington D.C. versus the state laboratories of reform but here is one exception. Yesterday Republicans and Democrats in the U.S. House formed a congressional transparency caucus to help promote open government initiatives.

According to Nextgov:

House Republicans and Democrats on Thursday launched a congressional transparency caucus that will call for new laws requiring federal information be accessible on the Internet for free and will teach other members about open government initiatives.

"On a bipartisan basis this caucus can bring about real changes to the way our government does business," said Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., a co-chair of the new 19-member group and ranking member of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

"We need to work together if !
we're going to ensure that taxpayer dollars are spent responsibly and lawmakers are operating honestly and effectively," added the caucus' other co-chair, Rep. Mike Quigley, D-Ill.

The caucus will work to educate peers and the public, legislate new policies and oversee existing ones, in that order, according to the group's members . . .

Other members that have indicated interest in joining the caucus include: Melissa Bean, D-Ill.; Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah; Lloyd Doggett, D-Texas; Bill Foster, D-Ill.; Steve Israel, D-N.Y.; Walter B. Jones, R-N.C.; Jim Jordan, R-Ohio; Mark Steven Kirk, R-Ill.; Doug Lamborn, R-Colo.; Blaine Luetkemeyer, R-Mo.; Patrick T. McHenry, R-N.C.; Walt Minnick, D-Idaho; Jared Polis, D-Colo.; Tim Ryan, D-Ohio; Aaron Schock, R-Ill.; Mark Souder, R-Ind.; and Jackie Speier, D-Calif.

The caucus' guiding principles state,

1. "The American people have the right to public access to all of their!
government's information. All of the federal government&#!
39;s information, with a few well-defined exceptions, should be freely available online.

2. The American people have the right to analyze the government's information. The federal government's information should be published in its raw format, downloadable in bulk and machine readable. . . . The government should adopt consistent data standards so that different agencies' forms, filings and records can all be searched together. All documents should be published at permanent Web addresses so that links to them remain valid.

3. The American people have the right to interactive access to federal laws, regulations and rules. All federal laws, regulations and rules should be published online in a format that makes them easily searchable, sortable and downloadable, so that citizens can electronically participate in the development of laws, regulations and rules.

4. The American people have the right to track all federal spending and sc!
rutinize the federal budget. Data on how taxpayers' funds are spent, and the federal budget itself, should be searchable, with every earmark and appropriation electronically identified.

5. The American people have the right to demand objective, transparent performance standards for all federal agencies. Federal agencies should track their goals and achievements using a format that is electronically searchable, sortable and downloadable, so that spending data can be associated with performance.

6. The American people have the right to aggressive, independent oversight. Inspectors general at federal agencies should be kept independent and active, and should regularly evaluate transparency in government. . . . Disclosures by regulated entities -- such as filings by lobbyists, federal contractors and grantees, banks and public companies -- should be published online, in formats that make them easily searchable, sortable and downloadable. Citizens shoul!
d be empowered to scrutinize these disclosures and collaborate to expos!
e corruption, fraud and other abuses.

7. We must institutionalize a culture of open government. For the government's default setting to change from a presumption of secrecy to one of openness, a cultural shift must occur. Through education and outreach, Congress should strive to encourage decision-makers throughout all branches of the federal government to choose openness over secrecy."

Based on what has been occurring in Olympia this year, let's hope a state transparency caucus will be forthcoming.

Budget logjam? State law to the rescue

March 25, 2010 in Blog

As the 2010 Special Session enters its eleventh day, with no end in sight, the Governor has decided to dust off state law to help bring about a resolution. 

According to The Olympian:

Gov. Chris Gregoire warned Wednesday that she could be forced to make across-the-board cuts of 20 percent if the Legislature doesn’t come up with a budget-balancing agreement.

Gregoire expressed frustration about the continued stalemate between the House and Senate over a tax package.

“They were here too long as of Monday morning,” said Gregoire, who had initially called for lawmakers to finish the overtime legislative session by last Sunday.

She said that if lawmakers aren’t wrapped up with their work to patch a $2.8 billion budget deficit by the time the special session ends next month, she won’t ca!
ll them back to town unless they have a firm deal. If they don’t, she says, she’ll have no choice but to make drastic cuts to state agencies and programs.

“Every day we don’t get a solution is costing us more cuts. There’s no question about that,” she said. But, “calling it a day and doing 20 percent cuts, I don’t know when that would occur.”

As we highlighted prior to the regular session concluding, state law requires the Governor to balance the budget if the Legislature fails to. 

According to RCW 43.88.110 (7):

"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 . . ."

Lawmakers have already had 70 days to adopt a budget. In fact, they're not even scheduled to do anything until tomorrow at the earliest. Since they don't appear to have any sense of urgency, why give them any longer?

The Governor should follow the requirements of RCW 43.88.110 (7) and balance the budget as prescribed by law.

While an across-the-board-cut is a blunt solution to a complicated problem, it is a solution.

This would allow the November election to be a referendum on the two strategies for balancing the budget: 1) massive tax increases, or 2) structural spending reductions.

Since lawmakers haven't been able to do their job to date, they should switch focus to campaigning for their preferred solution and allow the voters to set the stage for the 2011 Session.

Sound Transit's light rail cost is a whopping $8.56....per boarding

March 24, 2010 in Blog

Sound Transit officials have always claimed that light rail would be more efficient than buses. And if their ridership and cost projections were even close to being accurate, they might be right.

In previous financial plans, Sound Transit calculated light rail would cost just over a dollar per boarding by 2009. 

In reality, during Central Link's first six months of operation, light rail's cost per boarding was a whopping $8.56. Sound Transit's buses cost $6.58 per boarding and its Sounder Commuter Rail cost $13.71 per boarding.

To put this in perspective, the average operating cost for the six light rail agencies on the W!
est Coast (excluding ST) is about $2.62 per boarding. And their average operating cost for buses is about $2.34 per boarding.

Despite what the agency promised voters, Sound Transit operates one of the most expensive and inefficient transit systems in the country. This is probably why the State Auditor's Office will audit Sound Transit's ridership projections.

Washington lags behind other states in economic recovery

March 23, 2010 in Blog

Last week the Washington Research Council issued a short analysis entitled, "Washington's Economy Continues to Lag the Nation as a Whole." 

"For January Washington was one of the 19 states showing a one-month decline and one of the 31 states showing a three-month decline. For one month, Washington's decline was 0.1 percent, which ranked 36th among the 50 states. For three months, Washington's decline was 0.6 percent, which ranked 40th among the states.

As measured by the Philadelphia Fed indexes, California's economy, up 0.2 percent for both one month and 3 months, has better momentum than Washington's economy has."

Behind California? Not encouraging news.

On another front, it appears that Texas is among the first states to emerge from the recession, according to Comerca, Inc. 

"Texas will benefit more than other states from the national rebound in manufacturing and industrial production because of the state's diversified and sizeable manufacturing base, the report said. Manufacturing accounts for 13 percent of Texas's gross domestic product, the report said. 

The report predicted the state's low unemployment rate would continue to draw employees seeking work. Last year the state's population of about 24 million people extended by 2 percent, more than twice the national rate, Comerica said in its report."

Senate Majority Leader defends transparency record

March 23, 2010 in Blog

Yesterday at her media availability, Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown was asked about the Legislature's use of title only bills and the lack of adequate public notice on committee agendas.

Repeating her previous statement that the Legislature is much more transparent today than when she first took office, Brown defended the Legislature's use of title only bills and said she was unaware of the transparency problems described by reporters.

In fact, Brown said that I was wrong for indicating there was a problem. 

Here is the video of her exchange with reporters:

Since Senator Brown said she was unaware of the transparency problems being described, someone may want to bring these examples to her attention:

While this may be considered normal and transparent by Senator Brown, it is not what passes as transparency for the public. This is why WPC has drafted model language for a constitutional amendment to help put the public back into the legislative process:

BE IT RESOLVED, BY THE SENATE AND HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES OF THE STATE OF WASHINGTON, IN LEGISLATIVE SESSION ASSEMBLED:

THAT, Transparency and public disclosure in the legislative process is vital to a representative democracy.  THAT, At the next general election to be held in this state the secretary of state shall submit to the qualified voters of the state for their approval and ratification, or rejection, a new section amending Article 2, an amendment to Article 2, section 19, and an amendment to Article 2, section 22 of the Constitution of the state of Washington to read as follows:

Article II, new section.  No bill shall be eli!
gible for a public hearing until 72 hours after introduction.  No bill shall be eligible for legislative action of any kind unless it has first been subject to a public hearing in the same session of consideration.  No bill shall be eligible for legislative action on the floor of either house until 72 hours after it has been placed on the floor calendar.  This section may be suspended with two-thirds of the members elected to the house in which it is pending suspend this requirement, and every individual consideration of a bill or action suspending the requirement shall be recorded in the journal of the respective house. 

Article II, section 19. No bill shall embrace more than one subject, and that shall be expressed in the title.  No bill shall be eligible for public hearing or legislative consideration of any kind unless the bill shall lay forth in full the changes to any act or sec!
tions of law. Title only bills shall be prohibited.
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Article II, section 22. No bill shall be eligible for final passage in either house unless copies of the bill in the form to be passed shall have been made available to the members of that house and the public for at least twenty-four hours, unless two-thirds of the members elected to the house in which it is pending suspend this requirement, and every individual consideration of a bill or action suspending the requirement shall be recorded in the journal of the respective house.  No bill shall become a law unless on its final passage the vote be taken by yeas and nays, the names of the members voting for and against the same be entered on the journal of each house, and a majority of the members elected to each house be recorded thereon as voting in its favor.

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, That the secretary of state shall cause notice of this constitutional amendment to be published at least four times du!
ring the four weeks next preceding the election in every legal newspaper in the state.

One way to test for sure if the public shares Senator Brown's definition of transparency would be for the voters to have the opportunity to decide whether this type of constitutional transparency amendment is needed.

Sunshine Committee discusses constitutional transparency amendment

March 23, 2010 in Blog

The state's Sunshine Committee met this morning and had a spirited discussion on numerous issues. One of the agenda items was a proposed constitutional amendment. Here is the text of that proposal:

Article XXIV
Responsibilities of Governing Agencies To The People

The people of Washington State do not yield their sovereignty to the agencies that serve them. The people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to determine what is good for the people t!
o know and what is not good for them to know. The people insist on remaining informed so they may maintain control over the instruments that they have created,

Exemptions to any Act of the Legislature defining access to government agencies, public records and public meetings shall be limited to those enumerated on the date Article XXIV is adopted by voters.

Further exemptions to Acts defining and delineating access to government agencies, public records and public meetings proposed by the Legislature shall be referred to the people of this state for ratification.

Exemptions to Legislative Acts (Statutes, Laws) defining and delineating access to government agencies, public records and public meetings shall expire six (6) years from date of ratification, including those exemptions in force when Article XXIV is adopted by voters. Continuation of an exemption requires it be submitted to voters for approval.

Ultimately the committee decided that the proposal was outside the scope of its authority. Committee member Rep. Lynn Kessler suggested that some type of constitutional transparency amendment could be considered for introduction by a lawmaker independent of a recommendation by the Sunshine Committee.

Rep. Kessler highlighted that although the Sunshine Committee survived the Legislature's chopping block this year, it remains a target and should not provide any ammunition to detractors.

The committee also discussed claims of executive and attorney client privilege.

Testifying on the abuse of executive privilege, Mike Reitz, Legal Counsel for the Evergreen Freedom Foundation, commented on his experience with the Governor's Office on this issue. Reitz noted that Governor Gregoire has claimed executive privilege 421 times since 2007.

I also testified to encourage the committee to not recommend executive or legislative privilege be placed into statute but instead existing exemptions should be used for legitimate withholding of public records.

A recent Thurston County Superior Court ruling found that the claim of executive privilege even existing was questionable.

In related news, Olympia Newswire reports today that its request for details on the Governor's new tax package was denied.

The committee also considered whether changes should be made to uses of attorney client privilege to deny disclosure of public records. The decision was made to table the proposed language so that the public could provide comment at the next meeting.

E-911 Service Fee to Increase 36% under HB3216

March 22, 2010 in Blog

As my colleague Jason Mercier pointed out last week, Democrats introduced HB 3216 last week, which would expand the 911 service fee that landline and cell phone users pay to Voice Over Internet Protocol (VoIP) lines. It also raises the E-911 fee from $0.70 to $0.95 (state and county fee combined) for everyone. 

Greens vs. Science - BPA Edition

March 22, 2010 in Blog

We have not engaged this session on the campaign by the Washington Conservation Voters and Washington Toxics Coalition to ban bisphenol A (BPA) largely because such campaigns are built around emotion not science. As we noted yesterday, politicians were literally kissing babies at the ceremony to ban BPA. The campaigns against PBDEs and thimerosol were run in much the same way.

Last week we called on supporters of the ban to track its results to determine if the human illnesses they claim BPA is causing, actually decline during the next decade. That suggestion drew this response from a supporter of the ban:

If you're skeptical, maybe the WPC will fund a self-study in which you can swallow a teaspoon a day of BPA for a year, then report back one [sic] how it worked out for you.

This demonstrates how science-free the campaign against BPA is. Studies show that the high end of the public's exposure to BPA is one-tenth of a microgram per kilogram per day. One teaspoon is about 5 grams, or about 50 million times more, per kilogram, than the high end of actual exposure. Since I weigh about 86 kilograms, the BPA dosage the commenter wants me to eat is 580,000 times more than the upper end of real-world exposure.

By way of comparison, the maximum recommended daily intake of salt is 2,400 mg. To match in salt the BPA dosage the commenter recommends, he would have to eat more than 3,000 lbs of salt every day! My guess is that eating that much salt would have a more negative impact on his health than my swallowing 1 tsp of BPA a day.

The argument offered by the commenter, and many who called for the BPA ban, requires ignoring basic scientific precepts like the level of exposure. This is a common game in these types of campaigns and demonstrates that the efforts are not based in science but are simply eco-fads.

We will almost certainly see another effort next year to ban some compound deemed dangerous to children, and the campaign will certainly feature photos of babies. It will also certainly feature the same kind of unscientific claims made by the commenter.

Tax increases built on "faith" and "hope"

March 22, 2010 in Blog

As the special session enters day 8, agreement on how to raise $800 million in taxes for their budget plan remains elusive for majority Democrats. Despite calls to refocus on spending reforms instead to balance the budget discussion has focused almost exclusively on tax increases since the special session began.

One tax increase already on its way to approval by the Legislature is a bed tax on hospitals.

Here is one interesting floor speech on HB 2956 (bed tax) from last Friday that described the tax increase as one built on faith and hope.

Discussing the tax increase Sen. Rosa Franklin said:

"Hospitals I think brought forth an idea of which might help and it’s really one on faith. Sure, fiscal responsibility, bow waves, whatever. Nobody has any money. The feds don’t have any money. The state doesn’t have any money. So what we are acting now on is one I would say is of hoping that it will work . . . let us vote for the bill, send it on, hope it works and then hopeful that the economy will come back and that we will be able to really solve some of the economic problems . . ." 

Here is the video of her full floor speech including a response by Senate Minority Leader Mike Hewitt. 

As to the policy details of HB 2956, WPC's Health Care Director, Dr. Roger Stark, highlighted how states game the Medicaid system with these type of ploys in this study: How state officials use bed taxes and other schemes to manipulate Medicaid and increase costs to taxpayers

Mission Accomplished on BPA. Who Cares What Comes Next?

March 19, 2010 in Blog

Governor Gregoire today signed a ban on bisphenol A (BPA),a compound used in plastics such as beverage containers. Both the Washington Conservation Voters and the Washington Toxics Coalition praised the signing, arguing that BPA hurts children.

The Toxics Coalition even tweeted that politicians at the signing were "kissing babies (no joke)." Indeed that style of politics has typified the campaign against BPA, and in today's press release, one advocate said "Chemicals like BPA have no place in consumer products, especially those used by children..."

So, what now?

Advocates of the ban claimed all manner of impacts to children from BPA, as they have in previous campaigns. A Washington Toxics Coalition fact sheet claims that "Laboratory studies have linked BPA to cancer, miscarriage, obesity, reproductive problems, and hyperactivity." These impacts are seen, they claim, "at extremely low exposure levels."

This provides an opportunity to test the accuracy of those claims. Beginning next July, BPA is banned in beverage containers for children under age three. Over the next decade we should theoretically see a reduction exposure levels and, therefore, miscarriage, obesity, reproductive problems and hyperactivity. But that hasn't always been the way it has worked out.

After claims that autism was associated with a vaccine preservative called thimerosal, California banned it. A study found that even after it was banned, autism rates continued to climb. The AP noted "Researchers from the state Department of Public Health found the autism rate in children rose continuously during the 12-year study period from 1995 to 2007. The preservative thimerosal [a form of mercury] has not been used in childhood vaccines since 2001, but it is used in some flu shots."

If the Washington ToxicsCoalition and the Washington Conservation Voters care about helping children, and not just appearing to help children, they will measure the impact of these bills as time goes on and be honest about the results. Doing so is the best way to ensure that we are truly doing what is best for children. If BPA is harmful, the data will show it. If it is not, then they should support restoring itrather than risking impact from whatever compound replaces it. It may be embarrassing to admit they were wrong, but if their campaign is truly for the health of children, that is a small price to pay. We'll see what they do.

The Enemy of Innovation is...the Centerpiece of Environmental Policy

March 19, 2010 in Blog

Monday's Seattle Times wrote about the Bullitt Foundation's effort to create the "greenest building ever." The Times reports the Foundation is running into problems. Government regulations are hindering progress and the City of Seattle is having to waive some rules. This led to an unintentionally honest assessment of the City's regulation:

"We haven't actually gone down this road before," said Sally Clark, who chairs the Seattle City Council's land-use committee. "Most [regulatory] systems are not built for innovation."

Truer words were never spoken and they exemplify the problems with politically designed approaches to environmental sustainability. Innovation, such as hybrid vehicles and improved energy efficiency, has been the driving force in improving environmental health. Regulations impede that progress and narrow the options available to find new environmental solutions.

The irony is that politicians in Seattle and Olympia don't take that lesson from these examples. For them, the answer to too much government is more government. They add new regulations and government programs in the hope that such efforts will guide us to a sustainable future. As the new Bullitt Foundation building demonstrates, however, innovation thrives in an environment with fewer rules and more intellectual freedom.

Making regulation the centerpiece of environmental policy undermines the very freedom needed to promote innovation.

UPDATED: Public need not attend

March 19, 2010 in Blog

Keeping an eye on the Legislature has become increasingly difficult this session as legislative transparency has fallen way down on some lawmakers' priority list.

Here is just the latest example.

Around 6 p.m. last night the Senate Ways and Means Committee announced it would hold executive session today on at least five bills. The short notice of the hearing wasn't the only problem with this announcement. No time or location was provided; instead the notice said TBA.

As of 11 a.m. this morning the web agenda still say TBA on time and location of the executive session. Thanks to a tip, though, I know the meeting will take place in the Senate Rules room. In fact, I am currently sitting in the room watching Senate Ways and Means staff set the room up for the meeting.

When I asked what time the meeting would start I was told as soon as the Senate concluded floor action. This means there will likely be little to no public notice of when the meeting will start.

Another concern, TVW cameras are not available in the Senate Rules room which means unless you are sitting in the room you will not be able to see what debate occurs on the bills being adopted.

Surprisingly, if you know how to maneuver the Legislature's electronic bill book you will be able to find this agenda for the meeting.

Note that it says the meeting will start at 12 p.m. in Senate Hearing Room 4 (a room covered by TVW cameras). Also note the big bold letters at the top of the agenda: "Broadcast LIVE on TVW." 

Unfortunately for citizens, this agenda is not accurate. The meeting time is still TBA and will occur in the TVW-camera-free Senate Rules room.

UPDATE (4:25 p.m.)

As of 4:25 p.m. the web agenda still says TBA but the Ways and Means hearing will begin any moment. It appears no public notice beyond the brief mention on the Senate floor a few moments ago will be issued.

UPDATE (4:50 p.m.)

The hearing has just concluded. The web agenda still says the meeting time is TBA. The most interesting exchange was the rejection of an amendment to eliminate the state printer offered to EHB 2969. Unfortunately the amendment is not currently available online so I can't link to it. Those voting against the amendment said there wasn't en!
ough notice or time to consider the impact.

Walgreens Bails on Medicaid - Tip of the Ice Berg

March 19, 2010 in Blog

The Seattle Times reported on March 17th that Walgreen Drug Stores throughout the state would no longer take new Medicaid patients starting next month. This follows the decision of Bartell Drugs last month to stop taking new Medicaid patients. Fred Meyer and Safeway continue to take new Medicaid patients, but do so at no profit. Walgreen's action is consistent with fewer providers accepting Medicaid patients throughout the country.

Medicaid began in 1965 as an insurance program for children of poor families, the disabled, and certain individuals needing long term care. Funding was a 50/50 proposition between state and federal tax payers. The original budget was $500 million, yet by 1970 the cost of the program was $5 billion. Medicaid has now grown into the largest entitlement in the United States with a cost in 2008 of $330 billion and a projected cost of $580 billion in 2013 with the existing program. (Washington Policy Center Policy Brief)

As the number of Medicaid recipients has grown, the program has become one of the top three budget items for virtually every state in the country. As state budgets have been cut, funding for individual Medicaid patients has decreased and their access to health care has likewise diminished. As reported in the New York Times (here), this is a crisis occurring throughout the country.

One of the provisions of ObamaCare is a massive expansion of Medicaid, resulting in one out of five US citizens receiving their health care through the entitlement program. It is foolhardy at best and pure lunacy at worst to place more patients in a bankrupt insurance plan where the existing members are experiencing more and more difficulty finding care.

Legislative Games: Public Hearing before Introduction

March 18, 2010 in Blog

Yesterday we highlighted the "Transparency Games" that continue to be played in the state legislature.  The post covered a public hearing held by the Senate Ways & Means Committee on SB 6889, which at the time of the hearing hadn't been officially introduced by the Senate. 

At the conclusion of our post we wrote:

"It will be interesting to see how the bill history will read for SB 6889.  Will they acknowledge that the public hearing was held before the bill was introduced?"

Well, after several phone calls to Senate staff this afternoon here is the result:

6889

Now the legislative record accurately reflects that a bill was heard before being introduced.