Washington Policy Blog

Open Government Task Force Meeting Nov. 2

October 29, 2009 in Blog

The Open Government Task Force
created by State Auditor Brian Sonntag and Attorney General Rob McKenna
will have its final meeting on November 2 to vote on recommendations to
improve enforcement of 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.

State Auditor Brian Sonntag noted at the October 5 Task Force meeting
that 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.

On the agenda for Monday's meeting:

  • Presentations from the Washington Council of Police and Sheriffs and Seattle Times
  • Vote to Adopt Recommendations

Here are the findings from the draft report:

1) The Public Records Act and Open Public Meetings Act provide rights to the public for access to public records and meetings. The purpose of these laws is to allow the public access to public records and meetings. The courts are not always the best method for enforcing these rights and may be extremely expensive and slow. The added costs and uncertain liability of agencies subject to litigation are a growing concern.

2) There is a critical need for an independent administrative oversight agency to enforce the Public Records Act and Open Public Meetings Act with the purpose of providing an inexpensive, expedited, and clear process for resolving disputes.

3) The independent oversight agency should have authority to adopt rules pursuant to the Administrative Procedures Act to provide clear guidelines for an appeal process, and to issue advisory opinions interpreting the laws to provide clarity on agency duties. The oversight agency should make this information available on its website with other relevant information. The oversight agency should submit an annual report to the legislature on its activities, and recommend legislative reform.

4) Training should be mandatory for designated agency officials for the Public Records Act and Open Public Meetings Act. It would greatly reduce the concern over litigation. The oversight agency should provide periodic training, and make training materials available free on its website.

5) The independent oversight agency may be governed either by:

style="margin-left: 80px;">a) A single independent director ap!
pointed by the Governor who hires appeals officers to manage and decide appeals, and has a term set by law and may only be removed for cause, or

b) It may be governed by a commission.

6) The process for utilizing an appeal to an oversight agency should be expedited. The oversight agency should have a short period set by law to issue a final ruling on any docketed appeal, and a process for requesting immediate rulings on simple issues in less than the period set by law. The oversight agency should have discretion on granting any request for a hearing, and/or conduct a confidential in camera review.

7) The existing legal right to initiating an action under the Public Records Act in superior court applies to any person having been denied an opportunity to inspect or copy a public record, and also for an agency or its representative, or a pers!
on who is named in the record or to whom the record specifically pertains. RCW 42.56.540 – 550. That existing legal right should be extended for any appeal to an oversight agency by a person denied a record, an agency or its representative, or a person who is named in the record or to whom the record specifically pertains.

8) The costs for using the appeals process of the oversight agency should be minimal or none for filing an appeal, and there should be no award of attorney fees, costs, or penalties to a prevailing party at the administrative level.

9) A ruling by the oversight agency is binding on the parties, enforceable in court, and subject to an appeal and de novo review by a court of general jurisdiction. The oversight agency should not be named as a defendant in any appeal to superior court.

10) Use of the adm!
inistrative appeals process of the oversight agency should be encourage!
d to resolve disputes. There may still be a need in emergencies or for other fundamentally apparent reasons to initiate a lawsuit in superior court rather than filing an administrative appeal. A requirement to exhaust an administrative appeal with an oversight agency prior to appealing in superior court would end an existing legal right of the people created by initiative to bring an action directly before an independently elected judge. Therefore a process that allows the option of filing a direct action in superior court should be retained.

11) Adequate funding is vital to allow any oversight agency to successfully perform its work. Funding should be from a dedicated source.

While an administrative appeals option should be pursued, WPC believes it is very important that the right of citizens to go directly to court for relief not be infringed. Here is the video of our comments at the October 5 meeting:

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Boeing's decision and what it says about Washington's Competitiveness

October 29, 2009 in Blog

There's been a lot said over the past twenty-four hours about Boeing's decision to open its second 787 line in Charleston. Naturally, finger-pointing comes next. The Governor is dismayed, senators and representatives are now chiming in. This sure isn't pretty; hanging out in the loser's circle never is.

But OK, what now? Policymakers just got slapped upside the head by a corporation based out of Chicago. Boeing officials looked at Washington and sized us up and looked at Charleston and sized them up. They made a busine!
ss decision and we lost. That should say something about what we are offering the business community.

Of course there is an internal labor/management dynamic that the state can't influence. Or can it? South Carolina is a right-to-work state, where workers do not have to be members of a union as a condition for employment (a novel concept). Of course, this will never fly in Washington state -- just as long as we're prepared to lose business over it apparently. Should we have the discussion on mandatory unionization if that is truly one of the big causes for Boeing's decision yesterday? If so, then the question really is, why shouldn't we discuss it?

There are many reasons why some states are more competitive than others. Some reasons cannot be helped -- natural resources and open-water access are some of the reasons why Washington is more competitive in lumber, shipping, and agriculture than, say, a Midwest state. Likewise, it would be a bit of a!
challenge for Washington to compete with Florida over oranges!
, or Alaska for oil or Louisiana for catfish.

However, beyond natural resource advantages, policymakers and entrepreneurs can make a difference in how a state is perceived viz a viz business friendliness or an infrastructure for innovation. Those are intangibles not decided upon by nature. Microsoft didn't grow and succeed here because of the air, water or lumber. Neither did Boeing, Amazon, T-Mobile, Costco, UPS or most of the other of hundreds of thousands of businesses that were founded in this state. 

This is just the type of issue we'll talk about at Washington Policy Center's 2009 Statewide Small Business Conference. We'll talk about the things that policymakers can control and can improve upon to make our state more attractive to people. Because that seems to be getting lost in the discussion. Businesses don't make these decision!
s, people make these decisions, often based upon what's best for the company so that it can continue to offer goods or services to its customers -- who just happen to be people as well.

Join us on November 10th at the SeaTac Hilton for discussions on competitiveness, health care, our state's tax system, workers' compensation, unemployment insurance, environmental regulations and more, including sessions on how to survive in this economy and why it's important small business owners remain involved in the political realm.

Find out more information or register online here.

Vanpool Fact-of-the-Day #29

October 29, 2009 in Blog


In
its long-range regional transportation plan Destination
2030
, the Puget Sound Regional Council estimates that regional Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) is trending toward 98 million miles per day by 2030. This means
vanpools could reduce VMT in the Puget Sound by between 4.2 percent and 9.3
percent.

Vanpool Fact-of-the-Day #28

October 28, 2009 in Blog


Without
any onerous government regulations, social engineering or loss of mobility, vanpools could reduce
regional Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) by between 4 million to 9 million miles
per day by 2030.

Vanpool Fact-of-the-Day #27

October 27, 2009 in Blog

By
2030, vanpools could eliminate 84,752 cars from the roadway, or 4.8 percent of
all work related traffic in the Puget Sound region every day.

Government doesn't create jobs, businesses do

October 26, 2009 in Blog

The headline is a quote from the relatively new director for the Department of Commerce, Rogers Weed. I couldn't agree more. He goes on to say,

"About 80 percent of our state's economy comes from private sector activity, so we must have a strong, mutually beneficial relationship between government and the business community if we are to succeed in our mission to grow and improve jobs throughout the state."

Since the Legislature changed the name and focus of the somewhat amorphous Department of Community, Trade and Economic Development to simply the Department of Commerce, the department has gone through a metamorphosis of sorts. The legislation passed earlier this year not only changed the name of the department but directed the new staff to deliver a plan to better serve the needs of businesses and narrow its !
focus on economic development. The department is preparing to release its formal plan next week.

One of the things Director Weed mentioned in a meeting once was that when he arrived there was only one half equivalent of a full-time employee tasked with focusing on the needs of small businesses. Obviously that is insufficient, as small businesses make up almost half of the private sector workforce.

But I'm glad Director Weed leads off with the fact that it is not government's job to create jobs. Sometimes it's playing the supporting role, through infrastructure, education or transportation improvements. But other times it's getting out of the way -- streamlining regulations, easing the tax burden, etc.

It's important to have someone in charge who recognizes when government should step in and when it needs to simply get out of the way and let innovators innovate and entrepreneurs take risks.

I look forward to the final Commerce re!
port.

In the meantime, you can see Director Rogers Weed !
at WPC's November 10th Statewide Small Business Conference at the SeaTac Hilton (smallbusinessconference.org). He will speak during the morning legislative breakfast panel.

Vanpool Fact-of-the-Day #26

October 26, 2009 in Blog


By
2030, there will be about 1.78 million Single Occupant Vehicles traveling to
and from work every day, presumably during the peak commute times when traffic
congestion is at its worst.

Guess the Headline: Climate Change Edition

October 25, 2009 in Blog

The Seattle Times today has an Associated Press story about climate change and forestry in the Northwest. The story highlights a study done by Oregon State University regarding the effect of increasing temperatures on the growth of forests during the next century. It notes that:

Researchers from Oregon State University and the U.S. Forest Service calculated an increase in forest growth rates in Oregon and Washington of between 2 percent and 12 percent by the end of the century, when climate models predict temperatures to be between 0.9 degrees and 6.7 degrees higher than they are now.

It goes on to say that the biggest winners will be Washington's forests, saying "The highest growth rates showed in the Olympic Mountains and Northern Cascades of Washington and the Blue Mountains of Oregon."

So, what headline would you use for this story?

Study: Warmed NW forests likely to yield more timber

Study: Washington forests see greatest benefit from climate change

Study: Warmed NW forests may yield less timber

See the answer here.

Vanpool Fact-of-the-Day #25

October 25, 2009 in Blog


 
Sound
Transit estimates its light rail expansion will carry only 163,000 daily trips
by 2030, at a cost of $22.8 billion.

Vanpool Fact-of-the-Day #24

October 24, 2009 in Blog


The
average passenger load for a vanpool is 8.14 riders per van, so vanpools in the
Puget Sound could carry about 193,000 trips per day by 2030 for a public cost
of about $2.5 billion.

Agencies asked to determine which programs are mandatory

October 23, 2009 in Blog

The Spokesman Review this morning highlighted an October 15 memo from the Office of Financial Management to state agencies asking agencies to identify which of their activities are mandatory. As reported by the Spokesman Review:

Washington state agencies have been ordered to compile a list of their tasks – and whether they’re required by federal law or the state constitution – in preparation for budget cuts next year.

An Oct. 15 memo from the state Office of Financial Management, the governor’s budget agency, tells all agency directors to describe the work their agency does, the number of employees the work takes and the amount it costs the state’s general fund.

Most agencies must submit their reports by today, although the Department of Social and!
Health Services, one of the state’s biggest agencies, has until next week.

Agencies must indicate whether mandated activities are required by a constitutional provision, federal statute or court decision or by a requirement of the federal Recovery Act, or are “essential for preventing loss of life, addressing imminent issues of public safety or avoiding immediate and catastrophic loss of state property.”

The agencies must report whether functions not covered by those requirements, and therefore “non-mandatory,” are required by state statute or a contract such as a labor agreement, necessary to secure federal matching funds, or work that generates money for the state.

Here are additional details from the OFM memo (in part):

On Sep!
tember 23, I sent instructions for 2010 supplemental budget su!
bmittals that communicated the need for information regarding “mandatory” General Fund-State activities.

I have attached a spreadsheet that shows a list of activities for your agency that have been identified (via the Activity Inventory) as being supported all, or in part, by General Fund appropriations. We are now asking that you distinguish which, if any, activities are mandatory. For this purpose, “mandatory” is defined as an activity that meets one or more of the following criteria:

1. required by constitutional mandates, court decisions, or federal law;

2. required by Maintenance of Effort provisions under the federal American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009;

3. essential for preventing loss of life, addressing imminent issues of public safety, or avoiding immediate and catastrophic loss of state property; or

4. necessary for the governance of mandato!
ry activities.

OFM will use this information as part of consideration of the Governor’s 2010 supplemental budget proposal. We may ask for additional data or decision packages as necessary to expand on policy outcomes and other implications. A designation of “mandatory” or “non-mandatory” does not automatically translate into any particular budget decision. We know that many agencies will not have any activities that are considered mandatory under this narrow definition. This information is being requested because it is clear the state will need to focus on the most essential services as the budget is further adjusted to new revenue projections.

Vanpool Fact-of-the-Day #23

October 23, 2009 in Blog


Increasing vanpools by 600 percent by
2030 would only cost the public about $2.5 billion in taxes and move 20 percent
more people than Sound Transit’s $23 billion light rail expansion.

52% opted to donate to state parks in September

October 22, 2009 in Blog

Earlier this month the Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission announced motorists had contributed $1.4 million to state parks by opting to donate $5 on their vehicle license renewals. As explained by State Parks:

In the new donation program, vehicle owners’ license tab renewal notices have an automatic $5 donation added to the total due. Those who do not wish to make the donation simply subtract it from the total due, as outlined on state Department of Licensing renewal notices and payment coupons.

The Legislature projected that State Parks would need $28 million in donations over the two-year budget period starting July 1, to make its budget and keep state parks open. The program started with September renewals, leaving only 22 collection months instead of!
24. Because of this, the agency needs to collect an average of $1.25 million each month over two years to meet its budget. The September 30 total includes donations that were made in July and August – from people who paid their September renewals early and from some who made donations under the preceding donation program.

Thanks to the number crunchers at the Department of Licensing we now can see the raw numbers of those contributing through their vehicle renewals to state parks (link shows County numbers by month).

Parks Fee Donations - State Total

Month 2009

Number of donations

Pool of eligible vehicles

Percent opting to donate

January

8,134

406,466

2.0%

February

7,219

379,520

1.9%

March

11,667

481,693

2.4%

April

14,174

467,157

3.0%

May

16,427

489,211

3.4%

June

18,649

551,772

3.4%

July

16,040

488,398

3.3%

August

92,900

428,940

21.7%

September

213,905

408,703

52.3%

Total

399,115

4,101,860

9.7%

Despite the dramatic increase in the number of motorists contributing to state parks, the new opt-out provision has not been without controversy.

In fact, whether opt-in or opt-out, it is difficult to see the nexus
between motor vehicles and fees for state parks. Perhaps some of these
proposals for park funding should be considered instead: Securing the Future of Washington's State Parks

Obama administration takes aim at small business financing

October 22, 2009 in Blog

Yesterday President Obama announced a plan to help small businesses gain access to government-backed loans. According to the Wall Street Journal article, the maximum size of 7(a) loans would rise from $2 million to $5 million. The idea is that small businesses would invest these loans in machinery, equipment, land and buildings. The SBA's 7(a) loan program provides partial guarantees on loans for small businesses borrowing to invest in working capital, machinery and equipment and real estate.

Also increased would be the SBA microloans from $35,000 to $50,000. Microloans are a relatively new financing tool that was made popular with investors in third-world nations.

The Administration also wants to open up the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) to help increase outreach to the small busine!
ss community. Of course, no government money comes without strings attached. The local banks that issue the loans would have to submit to the TARP regulations which includes giving the government the right to purchase common stock at a set price. Also, the financial institutions taking TARP money would be subject to the executive pay limits -- although it's probably fair to say that most local and small banks do not pay their executives more than $500,000 a year.

While access to credit is important to the small business community, I hope the Obama Administration doesn't now sit back and think they have done everything possible to help the small business community.

Susan Eckerly, Senior Vice President of the National Federation of Independent Business put it succinctly,

"However [this plan] is not the silver bullet that
is going to propel small business owners to start hiring again. The
primary problem facing small business owners right now in terms of job
creation is not access to credit, it’s a lack of sales, customers and
confidence...

Following
in the weak economy, small business owners are worried about the threat
of increased taxes, new healthcare mandates, higher energy costs and
more regulations from Washington. Small businesses don’t need more
programs from Washington; they need lower taxes and fewer intrusions
from government so they can take the calculated risks to expand their
business.”

DOR publishes report comparing Washington's state and local tax ranking

October 22, 2009 in Blog

The Department of Revenue (DOR) today published an updated comparison of state and local tax rankings. According to DOR's press
release:

Washington ranks 26th highest nationally in state and local taxes as a percentage of personal income, and 32nd highest in property taxes, according to newly released federal data covering Fiscal Year 2007.

Washingtonians paid $109.25 in state and local taxes per $1,000 of personal income, compared to a national average of $113.32. Of that, $29.25 went to property taxes, compared to a national average of $34.04.

Washington ranked 15th in state and local taxes per capita at $4,269, $35 more than the national average of $4,234. Washington ranked 27th per capita in property taxes at $1,143, $129 less than the national average of $1,272.

The FY 2007 figures do not reflect the current downturn in the economy, which largely won’t show up until the Fiscal Year 2009 information is available for all states.

The Department’s annual report, Comparative State/Local Taxes, is ba!
sed on data published by the Census Bureau and Bureau of Economic Analysis. The full report is available here

Here are a couple of tables of note from the report: