Washington Policy Blog

Audit: School districts owe state $699,000

February 4, 2010 in Blog

The State Auditor's Office released two audits this morning on K-12 school districts' compliance with state law. The audits found that school districts owe the state at least $699,219 due to reporting errors that resulted in overpayments. Reporting errors also resulted in just under $118,000 in underpayments to school districts. The state also overpaid an additional $463,000 to school districts for the Learning Assistance Program (LAP) in 2008.

According to the State Auditor:

"School districts receive state funding based on their enrollment, certificated instructional employees' education and experience (referred to as staff mix) and student transportation. These three areas constitute 70 percent of the money districts receive. It is critical that school districts accurately report this information to the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI).

At the direction of the !
Legislature, our Office verifies the accuracy of what districts report to OSPI. This report includes the detailed results of our audits of the reporting in those three areas for fiscal year 2008.

For fiscal year 2008, we recommended districts repay at least $699,219 to the state. We also found reporting errors that led to a total of $117,676 in underpayments to districts. OSPI will make the final determination on the amount to be recovered."

Here are the audit reports:

Bill introduced to amend I-960

February 3, 2010 in Blog

Nine Democratic Senators (Prentice, Murray, Kohl-Welles, Regala, Fairley, Ranker, McDermott, Kline, Keiser) introduced a bill today to amend the provisions of the voter approved I-960.

Here are the details on SB 6843: Preserving essential public services by temporarily suspending the two-thirds vote requirement for tax increases and permanently modifying provisions of Initiative Measure No. 960 for improved efficiency and consistency with state budgeting:

  • Section 1: Changes the ten-year reporting requirement for the impact of tax and fee increases to include only those fiscal years in the biennium the tax or fee would first take effect and the subsequent four fiscal years. The fiscal analysis is restricted only to bills scheduled for public hearings.
  • Section 2: "(c)(ii) For legislation enacted between the effective date of this section and July 1, 2011, any action or combination of actions by the legislature that increases taxes may be taken with the approval of a majority of members elected to each house of the legislature.

    (d)(i) The legislature also finds that voter-approved initiatives may fundamentally change the services which the state provides, increase service levels of current programs, or mandate the state to provide new services. The legislature further finds that many of these voter-approved initiatives lack a dedicated funding source, which impacts the legislature's ability to fund other services. It is therefore the intent of the legislature to provide a means for the legislature to raise new revenue to fund voter-approved initiatives so existing education, public safety, health care, and safety net services for the elderly, disabled, and vulnerable people may be preserved.
    />(ii) Any action or combination of actions by the legislature that raises taxes may be taken with the approval of a majority of members elected to each house of the legislature if the revenue is for the purpose of funding a voter-approved initiative."

  • Section 3: Allows the legislature to permanently "modify" tax preferences with a simple majority vote.
  • The bill also eliminates the requirement for advisory votes on tax increases not ratified by the voters. 

Here are additional details on past suspensions of the state's 2/3 vote requirement for tax increases and the need for constitutional protections.

Should tax increases require a 2/3 vote?

February 2, 2010 in Blog

The worst kept secret of the 2010 Legislative Session is the majority party's plan to "suspend" the state's 2/3 vote requirement for tax increases.

Refocus Department of Commerce on...wait for it...Commerce!

January 29, 2010 in Blog

In early 2009, the State Legislature passed EHB 2242, changing the Department of Community, Trade and Economic Development (CTED) to the Department of Commerce.

Dept. of Ecology says we reduce CO2, trust us!

January 29, 2010 in Blog

This morning the House Ecology and Parks Committee is holding a public hearing on HB 2772, which requires state contractors to contractually provide performance standards for reducing greenhouse gasses. The act would also require climate expenditures, prior to implementation and expenditure, to provide information on estimated cost and reductions of greenhouse gas.

Of note is the fiscal note provided by the Office of Financial Management and the state’s Department of Ecology.  In part the note reads:

“The costs of this bill are indeterminate but expected to be significant…. Ecology cannot at this time estimate the future number or scope of individual agency activities that would reduce greenhouse gases or the time and staff resource required to calculate specific emission reductions or the cost of CO2e reduced for each activity.”

If Ecology is unable to measure or account for the costs of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, then how will policymakers know that their policies are effective and responsible?

However, this is the point of HB 2772, to bring accountability, ensuring that the states goals to reduce greenhouse gasses are achieved. 

New study: advanced treament removes drugs from environment

January 28, 2010 in Blog

A new study by the Washington Department of Ecology and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Pharmaceuticals and Personal Care Products in Municipal Wastewater and their Removal by Nutrient Treatment Technologies, shows the benefits of utilizing advanced technologies to remove trace elements of pharmaceuticals and personal care products from the environment.

The following key findings were pulled from the study:

“Secondary treatment alone achieved high removals for hormones and steroids.”

“Approximately 21% of the 172 analytes were reduced to below reporting limits by conventional secondary treatment, whereas 53% were reduced to below reporting limits by at least one advance nutrient-removal technology.”

“Roughly 20% of the 172 analytes (mainly polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons) were found only in the biosolids and not the wastewater samples.”

In conclusion the study finds that, “Results of this screening study indicate that the combination of enhanced biological nutrient removal and filtration processes provides the greatest PPCP removal.” Though many wastewater treatment facilities that discharge to the Puget Sound do not utilize these methods today, the study also found that , “other options…may further reduce PPCP and nutrient concentrations in municipal discharges.”

Previously we have shared with the Legislature our report: Drug Take-Back Programs: What Will They Solve?

Below are a couple of the key finds from that report.

1. To date, no science has been provided to show that take-back programs reduce the amount of drugs in the environment. This, in part, is because the drugs being found in the environment come from human and animal excretion after the use of drugs. As a side note, all of the take-back programs, including the B.C. program, as well as others in the U.S. and across Europe, were designed to deal with drugs in the environment and not drug abuse. Comparisons to other programs should be limited to their effectiveness on the environmental protection, which we have shown is not supported by science.

2. The EPA and White House have issued a clear directive for the disposal of unused or unwanted drugs. The federally established standards, “are designed to reduce the diversion of prescription drugs, while also protecting the environment.” These standards call for the disposal of unused or unwanted drugs by placing them in landfills, not flushing them.

Before the Legislature adopts any policy to mandate producer led take-back programs several key questions still need to be resolved, such as what is the source of PPCP’s in the environment? What is the cost for removal? And will take-back programs effectively achieve the current policy goals being considered?

Is it time to restructure higher education?

January 28, 2010 in Blog

The legislature is currently considering numerous proposals to grant higher education institutions expanded tuition authority. The proposals have received mixed support from the state's 4-year institutions.

In light of the state's long-term budget outlook, serious consideration must be given to reforming the way the state finances higher education. The Washington Policy Center believes the state's four-year universities need to be empowered to have more control over their budget and finances and be less dependent on taxpayer subsidies.

One potential model is to allow the state's universities to transition to business enterprise status. In 2004, Colorado and Japan moved in this direction.

Here is what Colorado lawmakers decided:

!

"The general assembly finds that greater resource flexibility for state institutions of higher education can enhance more educational opportunities, as well as increase educational excellence.

The general assembly hereby finds and declares that:

(a)  The provision of higher education services is a business and;

(b)  For the purposes of determining whether an institution or group of institutions may be designated as an enterprise, it is sufficient that the institution or group of institutions receives less than ten percent of its total annual revenues in grants from all Colorado state and local governments combined and the governing board of the institution of higher education or group of institutions has authority to issue revenue bonds on behalf of such institution or group of institutions." />

Here are details on what occurred in Japan:

“The Japanese higher education system has recently undergone a dramatic change. Reforms, passed in 2004, granted independent corporation status to the 87 national universities. While they will still be part of the public sector, they are to be independently managed with their staff no longer being civil servants. They will also be able to set their own tuition fee levels, but may not exceed 110 percent of the standard tuition fee set by the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Finance.” (Source)

“Even after reform, the new National University Corporations remains basically ‘national’ in the sense that the state remains responsible for their functions, providing the maj!
or part of the funds that they need. Their personnel and other operational costs will be covered by ‘operational grants’ from the government. The grants will be ‘block grants’ which can be used at the discretion of each university without designated applications. It will be also possible to carry the grants over to subsequent years. For facilities of national universities, ‘capital development funds’ will be allocated separately.” (Source)

In Japan, the majority of universities are private versus public.

Moving to a high tuition/high financial aid model while providing the smaller state universities with the type of "block grants" used in Japan to help with the transition, may hold promise for restructuring how Washington partners with the four-year universities.

Not High Speed Rail: $590 million to help Seattle/Portland train be on time

January 28, 2010 in Blog

Washington to get $590 million for high-speed rail improvements

Only two-thirds of passenger trains run on time on the 3 ½-hour trip
between Seattle and Portland, and the state is trying to boost that
number to 90 percent.

Let's be more clear. This money is not to build a high-speed rail system between Portland and Seattle. This money is only to help Amtrak reach better on-time performance. And Amtrak trains are already highly subsidized, losing an average of $37 per passenger.

WPC completed a 30 page study on the government's supposed attempt to build HSR. Here are the key findings:

• Initial funding commits the nation to a program whose eventual costs could exceed $1 trillion. This doesn’t count overruns, operating subsidies, and rehabilitation costs.
• Outside of the Boston-to-Washington and Philadelphia-to-Harrisburg routes, Amtrak short distance trains lose an average of $37 per passenger and Amtrak expects the states to cover most of these operating losses.
• A hidden cost of rail is that it must be rebuilt about every 30 years.This means construction could />leave states obligated to fund billions of dollars in rehabilitation costs.
• The fact that American freight railroads are profitable while European passenger lines are not suggests that freight, not passenger, is the highest and best use of a modern railroad in most places.
• It is far more cost-effective to save energy by encouraging people to drive more fuel-efficient cars than to build and operate high-speed rail.
• Considering the energy required for rail construction, improvements in auto and airline energy efficiencies, and the high energy cost required to move trains at higher speeds, highspeed rail will have little to no environmental benefit.
• Upgrading the 280 rail miles in Washington to 110-mph standards would cost nearly $1 billion.
• The average Washingtonian will take a round trip on high-speed rail once every 8.5 years.
• For every Washingtonian who rides high-speed rail once a month, more than 100 Washington res!
idents will never ride it.

You can read th!
e full report here:
Why the U.S. and Washington Should Not Build High-Speed Rail

Senators propose government restructuring commission

January 26, 2010 in Blog

A bipartisan group of Senators (Kastama, Swecker, Eide, Delvin, Hobbs, King, Murray, Hatfield, Berkey) has introduced SB 6786: Creating a commission to restructure state government.

According to the bill:

(2) The commission shall:
(a) Review budget, revenue, and caseload forecasts and estimates over the ensuing six-year period;

(b) Examine current operations and organization of stat!
e government assuming no expansion of current funding sources;!

(c) Evaluate operational and organizational restructuring possibilities to find cost savings and efficiencies in order to maintain or enhance governmental functions with fewer resources.

(3) The commission may make proposals to:

(a) Adopt methods and procedures for reducing expenditures to the lowest amount consistent with the efficient performance of essential services, activities, and functions;

(b) Eliminate duplication and overlapping of services, activities, and functions, and time-consuming or wasteful practices;

(c) Consolidate services, activities, and functions of a similar nature;

(d) Abolish services, activities, and functions not necessary to the efficient operation of government;

(e) Eliminate unnecessary state departments and agencies, create necessary new state departments and agencies, reorganize existing state departments an!
d agencies, and transfer functions and responsibilities among state departments and agencies;

(f) Define or redefine the duties and responsibilities of state officers;

(g) Revise present provisions for continuing or permanent appropriations of state funds of whatever kind for whatever purpose, eliminate any such existing provisions, and adopt new provisions.

The bill appoints Booth Gardner, John Spellman, Sid Snyder, Slade Gorton, Dan Evans, and Ruth Walsh McIntyre to the commission.

One of the many recommendations from Washington Policy Center's Policy Guide is to begin a “base closing” process for state programs and agencies to determine which ones can be consolidated or eliminated to help optimize state spending. The proposed restructuring commission appears to be a step in this direction.

Can light rail avoid Bellevue Way?

January 26, 2010 in Blog

Yes. And according to Bellevue City Councilman Kevin Wallace, his Vision Line proposal also costs less:

This proposal, dubbed the "Vision Line," accomplishes Sound Transit
goals by providing quality light rail at a cost substantially less than
the tunnel routes under consideration. Sound Transit is currently
studying the Vision Line and three other new alignments in downtown
Bellevue. In the coming months it will decide whether to adopt this
option as its new preferred alternative.

The Vision Line uses the BNSF railroad right of way through South
Bellevue, travels elevated along the west side of Interstate 405 at the
edge of downtown to Northeast Sixth Street where it crosses I-405 and
reconnects with the BNSF right of way to the north.

This alignment is safer, faster and more reliable than other
alternatives because it is entirely grade separated from roadways,
meaning it can run at full speed without concern for traffic.

Bill introduced to outsource part of state's I.T. functions

January 25, 2010 in Blog

Last summer the state broke ground on the new Department of Information Services data center. The project will cost upwards of $255 million and consolidate the state government's I.T. infrastructure and its 32 current data centers. But some legislators are concerned that such a large project isn't necessarily the best way to go. Why? Because of the emergence of cloud computing.

Restriction on new tax preferences introduced

January 22, 2010 in Blog

Senator Rodney Tom (D-48) has introduced a bill to restrict the creation of new tax preferences. SB 6736: Modifying state expenditure limitations would mandate that new tax preferences must be offset with reductions in existing tax preferences. The bill would change the state's expenditure limit to: 

Section 1. (d) Assure that new tax preferences do not decrease funding for essential services by adjusting previously enacted tax preferences; . . .

Section 3. (1) After January 1, 2010, the fiscal impact of new tax preferences must be offset by modifying or repealing previously enacted tax preferences in order to enact a single piece of legislation which has a net zero impact or a net posit!
ive impact.

The proposal also changes the definition of what it means to raise taxes:

Section 2. (6) For the purposes of this chapter, "raises taxes" means any action or combination of actions by the legislature, other than an action or combination of actions that has a net zero impact or a net positive impact under section 3 of this act, that increases state tax revenue deposited in any fund, budget, or account, regardless of whether the revenues are deposited into the general fund.

If adopted this means that new tax preferences could not be enacted unless a previous tax preference was modified to generate the same amount of revenue or more. The two-thirds vote requirement to enact tax increases would not be triggered under such an action since the bill redefines what it means to raise taxes.