Washington Policy Blog

State Auditor & Attorney General: We need a better way to enforce open government laws

October 5, 2009 in Blog

The Open Government Task Force created by State Auditor Brian Sonntag and Attorney General Rob McKenna met this morning to discuss alternative ways to enforce the state's open government laws. Currently the only option available to citizens is to file a lawsuit if they disagree with an agency's opinion on whether a record should be disclosed.

Opening the meeting State Auditor Brian Sonntag noted there has to be a better way for citizens to access government records without having to resort to lawsuits. Attorney General Rob McKenna agreed highlighting the fact that every other area of law has an administrative mechanism for addressing concerns. The reason is administrative mechanisms are faster and more cost effective than relying solely on court relief. Unfortunately, Washington lacks this type of recourse!
for enforcement of the state’s open government laws.

The Task Force's heavy hitters (including House Majority Leader Lynn Kessler, Rep. Chris Hurst, Rep. Joel Kretz, and Sen. Bob Morton) heard a presentation from Terry Mutchler, Executive Director of Pennsylvania's Office of Open Records. Mutchler described how Pennsylvania's administrative process works for citizens and agencies to resolve public records dispute.

The administrative review processes in other states was also discussed at the meeting. Working with the Attorney General's Office I reviewed the public records laws in the states with administrative options for citizens and created this handout for the Task Force.

Here is a sampling of how enforcement of open government laws !
works in those states:

  • Kentucky - Attorney General review of records dispute and subsequent opinion has the full force and effect of law.
  • Nebraska - If an agency ignores the opinion of the Attorney General that a record should be disclosed, the Attorney General must sue the agency on behalf of the citizen if requested.
  • New Jersey - Government Records Council offers mediation services to resolve records disputes.
  • North Dakota - If an agency ignores the opinion of the Attorney General that a record should be disclosed, the agency or public official is personally liable.

Next up for the Open Government Task Force is working on a draft report laying out its recommendations for the Legislature to consider next session.

Vanpool Fact-of-the-Day #5

October 5, 2009 in Blog

vanpool programs report an average daily round trip within a range of 48-108

Vanpool Fact-of-the-Day #4

October 4, 2009 in Blog

Sound transit agencies provide more than 1,700 daily vanpools and serve about
4.8 million passenger trips per year.

Vanpool Fact-of-the-Day #3

October 3, 2009 in Blog

the Puget Sound there are six transit agencies that provide vanpool services:
Community Transit, Intercity Transit, Island Transit, King County Metro, Kitsap
Transit and Pierce Transit.

Governor wants agencies to focus on core missions

October 2, 2009 in Blog

The House State Government committee held a work session today focused on how to improve agency efficiency. Rep. Sam Hunt, Chair of the committee, opened the meeting by asking, "What do we do to make government more efficient?"

One of the solutions provided by the Governor's Office is for agencies to spend more time on their core missions versus "back office" activities. Here is the info from one of the Governor's handouts:

Governor Gregoire wants state government to meet the demands of the 21st century economy. One key to success is for state agencies to focus on their core missions.
  • Reduce the size of government
  • Provide 21st century customer service
  • Streamline agencies and operations to get best value for cost

The goal is to better serve the public with a more nimble and efficient government. The public will continue to receive service from the experts in the field, and departments will receive the same: business services from the agency expert in the field. It’s the old example: why should the head of DSHS have to be a real estate guru as well as a social services expert?

We will align our systems to achieve economies of scale and improve efficiency across the spectrum of government.

This is a matter of aligning programs and positions, not judging the people in them. The driving force behind this is maximizing limited resources. The work people in central service fields do is valuable and needed. State agencies must have email to function. The question is whether an agency should be running its own email system when taxpayers are also funding a Department of Information Services.

We know it will be hard. Change when resources are scarce is diffi!
cult. We know savings may not be instant, and the steps have to be incremental. But difficulty is not an excuse for the status quo. Constant improvement is a hallmark of successful organizations.

We are committed to it. The governor has made this a priority, and so has the cabinet. We’re accepting the challenge and expect to meet it.

Also discussed was the joint effort between the State Auditor and the Governor to review ways to improve agency efficiency.

Here are additional details on the State Auditor's effort and the Governor!
9;s reform goals

DOR: Three Million State Residents May Have Unclaimed Property

October 2, 2009 in Blog

In need of extra cash? The state is holding $700 million in unclaimed property - some of which may be yours. According to the Department of Revenue:

Three million current or former Washington residents have a stake in $700 million in unclaimed property being held by the Washington State Department of Revenue. You may be one of them.

Their names are listed in the Department’s searchable online database, http://claimyourcash.org, as having unclaimed property turned over to the state by businesses, generally after they have had no contact with the holder for three years.

Unclaimed property includes items such as uncashed paychecks, rent and utility deposits, refunds, escrow funds, dormant bank accounts, stocks and bonds and even the contents of safe deposit boxes.

The Department mails claim forms to the last-known addresses of potential claimants after they receive the property, but oft!
en the individuals have moved and no forwarding address is available.

During Fiscal Year 2009, the Department returned $45 million to 88,000 claimants, yet the number of people with potential claims continues to grow.

Revenue Director Cindi Holmstrom said the odds of someone finding unclaimed property have grown steadily over the years, are now literally 50-50, as the Department continues its efforts to educate businesses on the legal requirements to turn over unclaimed property.

“We’ve made it as easy and simple as possible for people to search for and claim their property,” Holmstrom said. “Our goal is to return as much of this property as possible to the rightful owners.”

Click here to see if the state is holding your unclaimed property.

Washington teachers union jeopardizes state eligibility for federal funds

October 2, 2009 in Blog

On TVW yesterday, WEA president Mary Lindquist explained that the WEA remains opposed to a merit or performance pay plan for teachers. This discussion appears at 15:00:00:

The rationale given by the union leader is that teachers will stop helping students (by sharing information about students), if merit pay is introduced.

The follow-up interview of Senator McAuliffe indicates that she is intent on pursuing federal Race to the Top funding, which could mean an additional $200-$300 million for Washington state. However, in order to qualify for these funds, the senator will have to demonstrate that the state is undertaking education reform in four areas, including teacher compensation reform. The regulations issued in August explain that she will be required to show evidence of a performance pay plan for principals and teachers. See the Department of Education Race to the Top regulations for exact language under part C. Great Teachers and Leaders.

The union leader's statement has just made Senator Mcauliffe's job much more difficult, if not impossible, and clearly diminishes Washington state's chances at receiving $200-$300 million in Race to the Top funds.

This is ironic, to say the least, since the union leader says over and over again in this interview that the way to fix public education is to pour more money into the system.

Open Government Task Force Meeting October 5

October 2, 2009 in Blog

The Open Government Task Force created by State Auditor Brian Sonntag and Attorney General Rob McKenna will hold the first of two meetings on October 5. According to the Task Force's website:

The purpose of the Open Government Task Force is to study and make recommendations on the creation of an administrative board to rule on complaints of violations regarding the Public Records Act (PRA) and the Open Public Meetings Act (OPMA).

The Attorney General's Office and the Auditor's Office created this Task Force to address growing concerns among governments and the public. State agencies and local governments face a logjam of citizen complaints, costly litigation over the PRA and the OPMA, and uncertainty regarding potential liability that may require payment of attorneys’ fees, costs, and daily penalties. Citizens w!
ho are denied access to public records and public meetings have no choice other than to go to court, and lawsuits may take years to resolve and are costly. Going to court to enforce legal rights to access public records and public meetings is simply not an option for many citizens.

An efficient and inexpensive solution is needed to resolve complaints and provide greater access to public records and public meetings while reducing costs to governmental agencies and the public. Many states provide an independent administrative review process to resolve complaints without litigation. These states use administrative boards to offer services including mediation, dispute resolution, non-binding legal interpretations, investigation of potential violations, issuing final appealable rulings, offerings of legislative reform, and training public officials about their responsibilities under the law.

Here is the agenda and handouts for Monday's meeting. The meeting is open to the public and will be held from 9 am to 1 pm in the Senate Rules Room.

Even when we are right, we are wrong

October 2, 2009 in Blog

This from the Publicola blog:

2) The second press release is from the Washington
Policy Center, a right-wing transportation policy think tank,
announcing a new study showing that vanpools are “the most cost
effective and efficient mode of public transit.” The press release
doesn’t actually include or link to any data showing that vanpools are
better than actual transit (carpooling, vanpooling—whatever you want to
call it—isn’t transit). We’re not impressed. We give it an F.

By the way, the American Public Transit Association (APTA) defines public vanpools as mass transit:

It is considered mass transit service if it is operated by a public entity or is one in which a public entity owns, purchases, or leases the vehicle(s).

There are twenty vanpool programs in Washington State and all of them are provided by public transit agencies.

Vanpool Fact-of-the-Day #2

October 2, 2009 in Blog

2008, there were about 2,360 vanpools with an average load of 8.14 passengers
per van across Washington State.

Ways & Means budget handouts

October 1, 2009 in Blog

The House and Senate Ways and Means committees met today to discuss the state budget. Among the many interesting presentations was the Senate update on the state budget outlook and the House comparison of state budget processes. Below are some of the details of note.

Senate Ways & Means: Operating Budget Update

  • Based on current forecasts and information, there has been a $1.8 billion negative change in the anticipated fiscal situation. As a result, anticipated reserves have gone negative.
  • Based on the current revenue forecast, annual revenue is expected to be at 2006 levels for both FY 2009 and FY 2010.

Senate Ways & Means: Washington State Economic & Revenue Outlook

  • It is almost certain that the recession in both the national and state economies is now over.
  • The recovery is still fragile, and risks remain.
  • State revenues will lag the economic recovery.
  • The recovery in revenues will be slow and is subject to risk.
  • Collections in FY 11 are expected to be USD 300 million less than in FY 08.
  • Revenues in the 2009-11 biennium are expected to be 1% below their 2007-09 level

House Ways & Means: Overview of State Approaches to the Operating Budget Process

  • Minimum time the legislature must review a budget before a vote - About 13 states have some sort of minimum review period for budget bills (that is different than policy bills). Most requirements focus on the budget bill being available for a certain amount of time before floor debate or final passage. (For instance, Florida is 72 hours, Georgia is 24 hours in the House, Hawaii is 48 hours, Michigan is 5 days in the House, New Hampshire is 2 days in the House and 24 hours in the Senate, Rhode Island is 10 days in the House, South Carolina is 3 days in the House, and Texas is 48 hours in the Senate. Utah requires appropriation bills be provided to legislators by the 43rd day of session.)
  • Original budget submittal must be balanced - Nearly all states require the original budget proposal to be balanced. In Washington, the Governor is statutorily required to submit a balanced budget proposal.
  • Legislature must pass a balanced budget - At least three-quarters of the states require that the legislature enact a balance budget. Washington is not one of these; however, if the Governor determines that a deficit will occur because enacted appropriations will exceed projected revenues and the beginning fund balance, the Governor is required to order across the board reductions to bring the budget in balance.
  •  A deficit cannot cross fiscal years or biennia - Three-quarters of states, including Washington, prohibit deficits from carrying over into future budget periods.

Vanpool Fact-of-the-Day #1

October 1, 2009 in Blog

Washington Policy Center is rolling out a four-part series on the effectiveness of vanpools in the Puget Sound region. To highlight the key findings, WPC will also be releasing a fact-of-the-day through the month of October.

Here is the first vanpool fact-of-the-day:

The largest public vanpool program in Washington and in the United
States is King County’s, serving more than two million annual trips
with 826 vans in operation.

You can find more information on our vanpool study at congestionrelief.org.
You can also become a Facebook fan to have these facts and other transportation-related data delivered right to you.

No minimum wage increase for 2010 in Washington

September 30, 2009 in Blog

The state's Department of Labor and Industries announced yesterday that there will be no minimum wage increase for 2010. The minimum wage for workers in this state will remain at $8.55 per hour. This is the first time since Initiative 688, the initiative that coupled the minimum wage to the Consumer Price Index passed in 1998, that the wage has remained static. For several years, Washington had the highest minimum wage in the nation, this move may knock us down a spot or two.

The reason behind the move isn't a policy decision or politics, it's economic. The Consumer Price Index actually fell 1.9 percent during the 12-month period that ended in August. The Department said that the previous wage hike, $0.48 for 2009 wages, was because of a 5.9 percent increase in the CPI during the 12-month period that ended in August 2008. That!
is a very substantial change, due to many factors, but the price of oil probably being the largest ($147 a barrel in the summer of 2008 vs. $70 this summer).

Colorado experienced a similar fate when voters linked their state's minimum wage to the cost of living (CPI) but with the stipulation that the wage could actually decrease if the cost of living did as well. No one really thought it would, so Colorado policymakers where caught a little off-guard (even if their wage rate will only decrease $0.04 per hour). Washington's Initiative makes no provision for a reduction in rates, so the 2009 wage will remain unchanged for 2010, as opposed to decreasing, even though the CPI dropped.

Undoubtedly, there will be outcry from organizations that advocate for the working poor -- that no increase in the worki!
ng poor's hourly wages will keep more workers struggling t!
o pay their bills. But I would ask them to reevaluate their stance that the CPI should maintain control over how much a worker makes. What incentive is there for someone to do more or less in their job if their wage is determined by economic conditions, and not merit?

If someone supported Initiative 688 in 1998 because they thought it was only fair to couple cost-of-living increases to determine the minimum wage, then that same person cannot turn around 11 years later and say it is not fair when that same economic indicator does not produce statistics they don't like.

Boeing is the Canary in the Coal Mine

September 30, 2009 in Blog

Yesterday's release of the Governor's "Business Case for Consolidating Boeing 787 Assembly in Washington" again raises the question,  "Is Washington a good place for businesses?" Discussion about this subject heated up last week with the Department of Labor and Industries' preliminary 7.6% rate increase for 2010, and took on even more momentum with the Forbes article ranking Washington #2 for businesses and the Tax Foundation ranking us 9th best state for business taxation.

When it comes to establishing a competitive environment for businesses to compete, the state has to be careful to avoid picking winners and losers among private companies; using taxes or regulation!
s to create carve-outs or otherwise prop up businesses. This creates a distortion effect that makes some businesses, whether private or quasi-private, appear better off than they should be. It also socializes the cost of a business model that the market deems inadequate, which is antithetical to free enterprise.

In 2003, Boeing asked for, and received (implemented over a few years) a 40% cut in its B&O tax until 2024. This tax cut applies to companies that manufacture and sell commercial aircraft and components. To be fair, there are over 250 aerospace companies in Washington state and they account for over $36 billion in economic value and employ over 80,000 workers. So, obviously, aerospace is a BIG deal to the Evergreen state. But tax and regulatory cuts to one specific industry alienate the hundreds of thousands of other businesses that do not qualify for these benefits.

What happens then? The other industry sectors and businesses start asking for spec!
ial tax rates and incentives. And why not? The aerospace secto!
r makes up 15% of the state economy, so why shouldn't the other 85% of businesses get similar benefits? 

When policymakers go to bat for the business community, they should make sure that incentives are broad-based, that the tax system does not favor one industry over another, and that the regulatory structure applies a light and transparent hand on all businesses.

The best way to prove to Boeing that Washington is serious about attracting new businesses and encouraging businesses already here to expand would be to pass real reform in the workers' comp system, to take regulatory reform seriously, and tackle the health care cost issue. Some steps have been made in the past, but those pale in the face of what actually needs to be done (case in point the workers' comp rate and continued skyrocketing health care costs).

Maybe Washington state appears business-friendly to outside observers who don't have to live, work or own a busin!
ess here. Or perhaps Boeing's apparent desire to relocate tells us things we didn't want to hear about how friendly our business climate really is.