Washington Policy Blog

2010 new laws

May 5, 2010 in Blog

By signing the budget yesterday Governor Gregoire wrapped up (hopefully) the 2010 actions of the Legislature.

The House Office of Program Research has put together a good summary of the more than 300 bills passed by the Legislature this year. From the report:

This "Summary of Legislation Passed by the Washington State Legislature" summarizes all of the bills that passed the Legislature during the 2010 Regular Session. Transportation budget summaries are also provided. The report includes prime sponsors, a brief summary of each measure, a brief explanation of partial vetoes, and the final status of each measure.

A preliminary report for the special session can be found at the end of this repo!
rt. A final report including the special session will be distributed in late May and will include information regarding any special session bills that have been vetoed, or partially vetoed, by the Governor. Budget information will also be available at that time.

Here is the Senate version of the report.

Details on the Governor's bill actions are here.

For additional information on how your lawmakers voted on each of these new laws, visit Washingtonvotes.org.

Jefferson PUD to pay double initial estimate for PSE electrical service

May 4, 2010 in Blog

According to the Peninsula Daily News, Jefferson County Public Utility (PUD) Commissioners have reached a deal, at least in principle, to purchase Puget Sound Energy’s (PSE) electrical service system in East Jefferson County.

In 2008, voters approved a ballot measure, giving authority to the PUD to pursue the take-over of electrical services from PSE, a private-owned company, to the control of a public agency.  At the time proponents argued that a publicly-controlled agency could offer lower utility rates and better customer service.

Whether or not the proponent’s claims are true is yet to be determined, but the announcement of the nonbinding agreement between the PUD and PSE should serve as a reminder that the transfer of service from a private utility to a public one will not come without some costs to taxpayers.

For instance, during the campaign, proponents claimed that it would only cost taxpayers about $47 million to purchase PSE’s electrical services.  However, the tentative agreement reached between the PUD and PSE commits taxpayers to $103 million, more than double the cost claimed during the campaign.

There is, as PUD Commissioners move forward in their pursuit to become the provider of electrical services, no guarantees that rates will be lower or service improved.  As we highlighted in our Policy Note, “Moving to Government-Owned Power,” taxpayers in East Jefferson County should consider the following:

· New PUDs do not have guaranteed access to the best power rates, leaving them vulnerable to volatile price swings in the market,

· Ratepayers will lose access to PSE, which has a consistent record or providing reliable power, and

· Ratepayers, under a PUD, are exposed to more political risk and financial burden than ratepayers of a private utility.

In the end, our analysis shows that it is unlikely that shifting to a government-owned utility in Jefferson County would result in improved service or reduce costs for residents and business owners.  In fact, if the nonbinding agreement between the PUD and PSE is any indication, ratepayers in East Jefferson could be on the hook for more than they bargained for.

Washington's budget motto: "In Congress we trust"

May 4, 2010 in Blog

Today Governor Gregoire signed the 2010 supplemental budget. In doing so she put her faith and trust in Congress that additional federal funds will be approved to help her avoid making across-the-board cuts.

By making 60 vetoes to SB 6444, Gregoire reduced the state's reserves to $452 million (just over one percent) for the 2009-11 biennium. Unfortunately, to temporarily balance the budget, lawmakers rely on an extension of $480 million in one-time federal Medicaid funds that have yet to pass Congress.

According to Stateline.org, assuming these new federal funds is no longer the sure thing it was once thought to be:

"The Medicaid assistance, set to expire at the end of December, has become a critical component in many state budgets during a time of devasta!
ting deficits. So critical, in fact, that two-thirds of the states crafted 2011 budgets assuming that more of it would come through, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

For a while, this looked like a safe bet. The House had included the states’ extension in its original version of health care reform. But by the time Congress produced a final bill for President Obama to sign in March, the aid to states had disappeared into the legislative ether. Now, with Congress ratcheting up its scrutiny of new spending, it’s not at all clear that the Medicaid assistance will ever materialize.

If it doesn’t — or if it doesn't pass until much later this year — that would wreak major havoc in many state capitals."

With only $452 million left in reserves, should Congress not come through with the assumed $480 million, the Governor said she will be forced to issue across-the-board cuts as required by law or call a special session. 

The Governor believes, however, that not only are these funds merely "a matter of time," but she thinks another broader state bailout is possible.

With Congress only having a 23 percent approval rating, it is curious to see the state's balanced budget motto being "In Congress we trust."

As for some of the 60 vetoes issued today, the Governor said she was correcting drafting errors -- a trend that seems to have plagued the rushed-closed-door process the Legislature used during the special session.

Among the vetoes was the government reform commission we previously highlighted. The Governor left intact, however, another section of the budget that requires state and legislative auditors to do a core functions of government review (Sec 909).

Disappointingly the Governor also retained the proviso requiring the Department of Revenue to spend $1.2 million to start the administrative preparation for future working family rebates. Based on the projections of another multi-billion dollar deficit!
in the next budget
, it is unlikely the Legislature will decide to f!
und this new program calling into question the spending of $1.2 million in limited resources on administrative costs.

Instead of helping patients, state officials make hospitals ‘go to war’

May 3, 2010 in Blog

It’s sad when hospitals that went into business to help people be healthy, have to battle over expansion efforts that would create more jobs and better access to health care. But that’s what is going on in the Tri-Cities right now.

The headline in the weekend edition of the Tri-City Herald says it all; “Tri-City hospitals at war.” The fight is required by an outdated, unneeded state process called the ‘Certificate of Need.’ It puts state officials, not medical professionals, in charge of deciding how large a medical facility a community needs.

In this case, Kadlec and Kennewick General Hospitals are both being forced to criticize the other to get a thumbs-up for expansion from the state. Kadlec wants to add 114 beds, while Kennewick General seeks an additional 25. Chances are slim that both expansion permits would be approved, because the state believes adding more hospital beds to a community drives up costs. This has been proven to be untrue and the information the state uses to decide the expansion process is unreliable.

So instead of concentrating on providing the best and most cost-effective care for patients, the hospitals have been questioning the other’s occupancy rates for weeks. More public hearings are planned in the coming month. The state says the CON process, usually taken one-by-one, helps keep other hospitals in business. But what happens when two hospitals apply at the same time? The answer is simple- government officials pick the winner.

Last year, state officials rejected a much-needed expansion of Sacred Heart Medical Center in Spokane which would have created hundreds of jobs, expanded medical care and made Sacred Heart the largest hospital in the state.  The next time someone in the Tri-Cities can’t get adequate medical care because of a lack of hospital beds, we’ll know who to blame.

State Supreme Court hit with audit finding

May 3, 2010 in Blog

When thinking of the various grievances one could have with the state Supreme Court, financial mismanagement doesn't usually come to mind. According to an audit released today, however, it looks like even the state's highest court is in need of a watchful eye. From the audit

"During our audit of the Supreme Court, we reviewed its cash-receipting. The Court collects an average of $62,000 a year from filing fees, copying charges, fines, charges for processing Washington State Bar Association applications and fees for certificates. Most of the revenue is received in the mail or over the counter.

We found the Court’s internal controls are inadequate to prevent or detect the misappropriation of public funds:

  • The Court does not have a system in place to estimate expected revenue.
  • No one reconciles expected revenue, cases opened in the Court’s docket system and money deposited.
  • No one reconciles the cash-receipt book and mail log to the deposit.
  • Duties are not adequately segregated. The person responsible for making the deposit also has access to the accounting system. No one independently reconciles the deposit to the accounting system.
  • The Court does not record all incoming revenue. Filing fees included in boxes of case records delivered to the Court are not entered on a mail log.
  • The Court does not consistently record all cash received over the counter in the receipt book.
  • A page had been removed from the receipt book.
  • Only one person opens the mail.
  • The deposit detail (i.e. mail log) includes checks that are not actually being deposited. The Court does not deposit daily and often holds checks until the service for which the payment is received is performed.

We attempted to reconcile the expected revenue to actual revenue deposited by the Court. We were unable to match the number and type of cases filed and recorded in the Court’s case management system to the receipts posted in the accounting system.

We have not identified any compensating controls that diminish the risk associated with the lack of internal controls over the cash receipting process.

We noted these weaknesses in the prior audit. Court managers have not established policies and procedures to correct them.

The Court cannot ensure all funds received were receipted and deposited. This increases the risk of loss of public funds. These conditions impair the Court’s ability to prevent or detect errors and irregularities in a timely manner, if at all."

It is disappointing that these problems were identified in a previous audit but have yet to be corrected. 

Justice should be blind but the Court's books sho!
uldn't be.

North Thurston School District throws out flawed student assignment plan for Aspire Middle School and starts over

May 2, 2010 in Blog

Parents of all the 5th graders who applied to Aspire Middle School in the North Thurston School District received this letter over the weekend:

Certification laws, union contracts leave Spokane teachers tied up in knots

April 30, 2010 in Blog

Facing declining enrollment, the Spokane Public School district announced this week it is going to lay off 18 employees, mostly teachers. At the same time, the district says it plans to hire them back. The reasons and restrictions surrounding such a decision are mind boggling. Let’s take them one-by-one.

Children of school employees in North Thurston given special privileges over other children

April 30, 2010 in Blog

Not only does the North Thurston School District assign students to Aspire Middle School on the basis of their race, which is illegal, they have a written policy which gives preference to children of school district employees when there is not enough room at a school for everyone.

Washington's congressional delegation should join transparency caucus

April 30, 2010 in Blog

Yesterday 27 Republicans and Democrats in the U.S. House officially launched a Transparency Caucus.

As reported by NextGov:

"We're going to do a review and find out whether the public accepts the current disclosure," said Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., co-founding chairman of the caucus and ranking Republican on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

One of the group's first actions will be to ensure that information posted on the Web from every branch of government is consistent, searchable and downloadable, he said. The uniform level of reporting would allow citizens to have a better context for comparing spending figures such as federal officials'!
; compensation and earmarks, or appropriations for lawmakers' pet projects.

The goal of the caucus, which was announced in March, is to advance transparency and accountability across government. Measuring these goals will require online access to government information in formats that can be searched and downloaded for free, according to the caucus' principles. The group plans to make such information available by educating lawmakers, taking legislative action and overseeing existing polices.

"Our greatest challenge and mandate in government is regaining the public's trust," said Rep. Mike Quigley, D-Ill., the caucus' other co-founding chairman. "It means not just paying lip service, but taking financial responsibility, transparency and ethics as seriously as the voters want us to. If we can make the tough decisions and prove these as our priorities to the public, trust will follow."

Noticeably abs!
ent from the caucus are any members from Washington state. As !
a national leader on open government issues it is disappointing to not see our state represented. Hopefully Washington's Representatives will soon join this effort and Senators Murray and Cantwell will work to form a Senate Transparency Caucus.

North Thurston School District saves spots at Aspire Middle School for children of school employees

April 29, 2010 in Blog

The North Thurston School District has created a lottery for the assignment of students to Aspire Middle School, and has stacked it to give preference to children on the basis of their race, which appears to violate their civil rights under Washington law RCW 49.60.400.

It's time to televise U.S. Supreme Court hearings

April 29, 2010 in Blog

Though C-SPAN may never boast the highest ratings on television, it is likely there would have been a spike in Washington state viewers if yesterday's Supreme Court arguments on the state's public records law were televised.

A bill being considered by the Senate Judiciary Committee may help to encourage reluctant Supreme Court Justices to allow their proceedings to be televised. According to The Hill

A handful of lawmakers on the Senate Judiciary Committee hope to compel the Supreme Court to begin televising its proceedings.

Days after Justice Steven Br!
eyer shot down the prospect that the high bench would permit cameras in the court room this year, 13 committee members from both parties voted to advance legislation that would force SCOTUS to do just that.

A similar effort to express the "sense of the Senate in support of permitting the televising of Supreme Court proceedings" also cleared the committee on a 13-6 vote on Thursday. However, that effort is more symbolic, and would not have the force of law.

“Television coverage of the Supreme Court is long overdue, and I’m pleased that the Committee made progress on this front today,” said Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Pa.).  “The Supreme Court makes pronouncements on Constitutional and federal law that have a direct impact on the rights of all Americans. Those rights would be substantially enhanced by televising the oral arguments of the Court so that the public can see and hear the issues presented.”

The committee also cl!
eared a third bill on Thursday that would instruct lower feder!
al district and circuit courts to televise their proceedings too. Led by Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), the legislation carves out an exception for cases that could "endanger trial participants."

Our state version of C-SPAN, TVW, has been televising state Supreme Court hearings for years. It is past time for the federal courts to be brought into the 21st Century and allow citizens to see firsthand the legal arguments being made that may impact our rights as Americans. 

Back to yesterday's Supreme Court hearing on the state's public records law, it looks like opponents of public disclosure for signature petitions have a new ally - Bill Gates Sr.

Here is an excerpt from an interview with the Stranger: 

Question: Here’s a qu!
estion that’s only tangentially connected, but it’s timely. This week, the United States Supreme Court is taking up a lawsuit that grew out of Referendum 71, in which the court will ultimately answer the question of whether petition signatures for initiatives and referendums in our state should become public record. How do you feel about that debate?

Gates Sr.: I lean in the direction that it shouldn’t be public, doesn’t need to be public. You know, I don’t think that the initiative process is the best thing that’s ever happened to government, to start with. And I think there would be a concern that in signing this, my name will be on page three of the Seattle Times tomorrow morning and it adds something… negative to signing a petition, and that concerns me. That’s it.

Of course, this argument didn't sit too well with Justice Scalia who said yesterday, " . . .the people [of] Washingt!
on evidently think that this is not too much of an imposition upon peop!
le's courage, to -- to stand up and sign something and be willing to stand behind it."

North Thurston School District employees design school assignment plan to favor their own children

April 29, 2010 in Blog

Last week I wrote about the North Thurston School District using race to assign children to a popular new school, Aspire Middle School.  The school district created a "lottery" for assigning children, but then designed this lottery to ensure that Aspire Middle School is populated by the "right" percentages of white children, and the"right" percentages of minority children.  Minority students represent 27% of Aspire Middle School's population. The district wants the population of this school to be 37% minority to reflect district-wide numbers.  This appears to be a violation of the children's civil rights under RCW 49.60.400, which expressly prohibits schools from giving preferential treatment to students on the basis of race.

State's public records law on trial

April 28, 2010 in Blog

Today was a big day for Attorney General Rob McKenna, Secretary of State Sam Reed, and supporters of the state's public records law. The U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the case of Doe v. Reed. The controversy focuses on whether the signature petitions to overturn R-71 are public records and can be disclosed.

Here are details from McKenna's press release:

Laws granting access to government records are constitutional, and the public’s right to double-check election officials and signature gatherers should be upheld.

That’s part of the case Washington State Attorney General Rob McKenna took to the U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday, as he defended the latest challenge to Washington state’s Public Records Act.

“Access to government information, including referendum petitions, allows Washingtonians to trust – but verify !
– their government’s work,” McKenna said. “The public’s right to government records is an overriding state interest and shouldn’t be pushed aside because of one controversial ballot campaign.”

McKenna added that locking up petitions invites fraud that can’t be uncovered through a simple public records request. The state’s brief cites petition fraud cases from several other states, including Arkansas, Montana, Oklahoma and Nevada, as well as the District of Columbia.

McKenna and Washington Secretary of State Sam Reed also put the case in context of widespread attacks on open government laws.

“The petitioners have launched more than 25 cases to reduce disclosure and transparency in elections,” said Secretary of State Sam Reed. “This is a national effort to challenge open record laws around the country.”

Reading the tea leaves it looks like the state's public records law will prev!
ail. Here are the transcripts from the oral arguments

Justice Antonin Scalia wins first prize for his numerous zingers. Here is a sampling:

" . . .the people [of] Washington evidently think that this is not too much of an imposition upon people's courage, to -- to stand up and sign something and be willing to stand behind it."

"You know, you can't run a democracy this way, with everybody being afraid of having his political positions known."

". . . in light of the fact that for the first century of our existence, even voting was public -- you either did it raising your hand or by voice, or later, you had a ballot that was very visibly red or blue so that people knew which party you were voting for -- the fact is that running a democracy takes a certain amount of civic courage. And the First Amendment does not protect you from criticism or even nasty phone!
calls when you exercise your political rights to legislate, or to take part in the legislative process. You are asking us to enter into a whole new field where we have never gone before."

Also note this exchange with McKenna:

JUSTICE SCALIA: It -- it may be an issue in which his administration has taken a particularly firm stand and the public may not trust the job that the Secretary of State does.

GENERAL McKENNA: That goes to the heart to the Public Records Act, Justice Scalia, trust but verify. The people did not leave to the State the idea that, well, we will let you know what you need to know.

JUSTICE SCALIA: Trust but verify, I like that.

We'll know later this summer if a majority of the justices also like that argument and vote to uphold the state's public records act.

This is not the time for a new welfare program

April 27, 2010 in Blog

With the state once again projected to face a multi-billion dollar budget deficit in 2011-13, this is not the time to start a new welfare program.

Unfortunately this is the path the 2010 supplemental budget sets the state on. That is of course, unless the Governor uses her veto pen.

Here are the details from Section 136 (6) of SB 6444

"$1,200,000 of the general fund--state appropriation for fiscal year 2011 is provided solely for making the necessary preparations for implementation of the working families tax exemption pursuant to RCW 82.08.0206 in 2012."

The working family rebates were adopted as a policy goal in 2008 but not funded.

The $1.2 million is not to provide the working family rebates but for the Department of Revenue to set up the administrative process required to begin making the payments in 2011-13 if funded.

According to legislative staff, funding the working family rebates could cost more than $105 million in 2011-13.

Of note is the fact this proviso is different from the original version not included in the conference budget. Consider Section 135 (4) of an earlier approved version of SB 6444 (emphasis added):

"$5,250,000 of the general fund--state appropriation for fiscal year 2011 is provided solely for the implementation of Senate Bill No. 6875 (working families tax exemption). If the bill is not enacted by June 30, 2010, the amount pr!
ovided in this subsection shall lapse. It is also the !
intent of this subsection to approve implementation of the working families tax exemption as required in RCW 82.08.0206(4)."

SB 6875 would have increased the sales tax in-part to pay for the working family rebates. The bill was not adopted.

The more important part of that proviso was this sentence: "It is also the intent of this subsection to approve implementation
of the working families tax exemption as required in RCW 82.08.0206(4)."

You'll note that the proviso included in the final budget does not include this phrase which means the only thing being approved is $1.2 million in administrative costs for DOR, not the commitment of the Legislature required by RCW 82.08.0206(4) to begin funding the working family rebates.

Since it is unlikely a new welfare program costing more than $100 million will be high on the priority list of lawmakers trying to close a projected multi-billion dollar deficit, the use of $1.2 million for administrative prep costs seems like a waste of resources.

It would be prudent for the Governor to veto this section of the budget unless she believes the state can afford a new welfare program without raising taxes in the next budget.

Legislative tax error shows value of transparency

April 26, 2010 in Blog

The Legislature's well documented lack of transparency this past session was not only an affront to citizens that demand open and accountable government but also lead to an easily avoidable error in the final tax package that could cost even more Washington jobs. 

By failing to slow down long enough to hold a single public hearing on the final tax proposal or allow enough time for lawmakers to read and understand the tax changes being made, lawmakers failed to provide the relief they thought they were granting to the in-state soda industry when raising the pop tax.

As noted by Washington !
State Wire
:

Here’s what happens when you pass a soda-pop tax increase and you don’t bother with a hearing.

You get a great big sticky mess.

As part of their $794 million budget-balancing tax package this year, lawmakers decided to increase the tax on soda pop by two cents a can. And when small bottlers across the state said it was a tax they couldn’t bear, lawmakers said no problem – they’d give them an exemption.

Trouble is, the Legislature didn’t understand how the industry worked.

Now bottlers are foaming. They say they’re stuck with a tax break that won’t work and a tax increase that will cut deeply into their business. Lawmakers say they’re sorry, they didn’t mean it that way – and maybe they’ll fix it next year.

“That doesn’t make me feel very good,” said Tim Martin, president of the Washington Beverage Association and owner of Harbor Pacific Bottling in Elma. Th!
e Legislature’s boo-boo will cost him $375,000, and every ot!
her small bottling company in communities around the state will face a tax bill just like his.

“Time will only tell how it’s going to work, but whatever happens, we’re going to have to tighten our belt and lay off a few people,” he said . . .

By the time of Friday’s bill signing, nearly two weeks had elapsed since the final draft of the bill was released. The soda-pop industry made sure everyone knew about the problem, and they lined up support from House Speaker Frank Chopp. He asked Gov. Gregoire to use her line-item veto to eliminate the pop tax – but the governor said no.

It wasn’t easy getting legislators to agree on the tax bill, she said, and she sold the compromise to the Legislature as a package. She wasn’t about to go back on the deal unless Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, D-Spokane, asked her to do it, too. Gregoire said she spoke with Brown Friday morning, and Brown didn’t ask. So the pop tax stayed.

ote>

Transparency is not a fad or catch phrase, it's the cornerstone of a functioning democracy and government accountability.

Maybe, just maybe, enough lawmakers will understand this next year and institute long overdue transparency reforms to help involve the public and avoid future mistakes caused by rushing through legislation.