Washington Policy Blog

"Please don't raise my pay"

January 20, 2009 in Blog

The Olympian reports today on a hearing of The Washington Citizens' Commission on Salaries for Elected Officials. Not surprisingly a majority of those elected officials testifying asked the Commission to not raise their pay in light of the economic situation. As noted by The Olympian:

Testimony before a state citizen salary commission blew like a headwind this morning against giving pay increases this year to state elected officials, judges or legislators.

New state Treasurer Jim McIntire, a Democrat, testified against giving raises, saying increases would put lawmakers — and others poised to freeze the pay of state employees and K-12 teachers — in a tough position. He urged commissioners not to raise pay.

Two other Democrats, Gov. Chris Gregoire and new Commissioner of Public Lands Peter Goldmark, both sent letters to!
the commission arguing against raises. Gregoire wrote that she recognized the difficulty of balancing fair salaries against public opinion.

Rather than force elected officials to beg a commission to not raise their pay, an alternative may be eliminating the Salaries Commission and restoring this conversation to the legislature. Such a change would also have a positive impact on the state's budget.

Consider the fact the Governor's 2009-11 budget provides $395,000 for the Commission's activities.

Ecofads and the Economy in 2009

January 18, 2009 in Blog

This year the World Economic Forum is holding a contest on YouTube, inviting people to answer one of four questions about the state of the world in 2009. The question I answered is "Will the environment lose out to the economy in 2009?" I answer "no," but you'll have to watch to find out why.

The topic of my video fits with one of the five elements in our "Agenda for Effective Environmental Stewardship" we are presenting to the legislature. We call for a more aggressive effort to remove barriers to salmon habitat on Department of Transportation projects.

After you watch it, go to the YouTube page and rate it. I am simply looking for feedback and this is in no way related to the fact that those with good videos and strong ratings may be flown to Switzerland to attend the conference. I deny that categorically.

Passing the budget test

January 15, 2009 in Blog

When preparing for an important test you should:

A) show up 20 min before the test and wing it;

B) look over a friend's notes on the way to the classroom and hope for the best; or

C) calmly and diligently spend time before the test to prepare? 

Now remember the question is what should you do not what do you do. The obvious answer is C).

Unfortunately when it comes to legislative budget proposals, lawmakers and the public are often forced to do either A) or B).

One way to address this problem is with a "budget timeout" before public hearings or votes could occur on legislative spending proposals. This is a concept supported by Congressman Brian Baird. It also appears state lawmakers recognize the need to provide more time to learn the details on budget proposals !
before action is taken.

Consider the introduction today of SB 5186: Establishing a period of public and legislative review of appropriations legislation:

The legislature finds that approval of the state budget is among the most important acts of the legislature in any year, and that the public is entitled to a reasonable opportunity to learn how public funds are proposed to be expended before bills making appropriations become law. The legislature further finds that public notice, dissemination of information, and informed analysis of proposed budgets is an essential requisite of transparent, accountable government.

Omnibus appropriations bills frequently have been acted on by the legislature in a manner that has afforded little opportunity for public review and information about proposed expenditures, or for members of the legislature to !
deliberate upon proposed appropriations in an informed and con!
scientious manner. The legislature finds this practice has weakened the performance of the legislature in its stewardship of public funds, and reduced public trust in government. The legislature finds that many other states, in their constitutions, statutes, or legislative rules, require an opportunity for public and legislative review of budget legislation.

The legislature therefore finds it in the public interest to provide for an appropriate period of public and legislative review of all omnibus appropriations bills before they are acted on by the legislature and submitted to the governor for approval . . . An omnibus operating, capital, or transportation appropriations bill, or proposed substitute, striking amendment, or conference committee report thereon, must be made publicly available to the members of the legislature and the public at least three calendar days before such a bill may be voted on by the senate or the house of representatives.

/div>

What do you think? Step in the right direction?

Here are some resources on the topic:

Waiting Periods for Fiscal Bills

Lawmakers Need a 72 Hour Budget Timeout

League of Education Voters gives taxpayers a D+

January 15, 2009 in Blog

Today the League of Education Voters released its 2009 Citizens' Report Card, which compiles many sobering statistics about the mediocre to poor performance of Washington's public schools. These statistics correctly show how our schools are failing to prepare our K-12 students for college and the workplace. 

The report card, however, gives taxpayers a "D+" for school funding.  The Seattle Times says, citing the LEV report, that the "state's per-pupil spending continues to decline."   This is wrong.  Per student education spending is increasing.

The facts are that Washington taxpayers are generously paying for public education, and have increased per pupil spending in excess of inflation with each biennium.  Take a look at this graph from the Senate Ways and Means Committee:

School graph

Education spending has almost tripled since 1980, and increased by 29% since 2004.  Taxpayers provide approximately $9500 per pupil, more now than ever in the history of the state.  And smaller families means there are more taxpayers today compared to the number of students.

Taxpayers are providing the schools with ample funding.  At the same time, only 59 cents of every education dollar makes it to the classroom. Less than half of public education employees are classroom teachers.

Education reformers need to face the reality that in public education it is not the amount of money, but the way we spend the ample money provided by taxpayers, which needs to change.  This is well demonstrated in "Getting down to Facts" from Stanford University at http://irepp.stanford.edu/projects/cafinance.htm.  Otherwise, we will simply pay a lot more for the same poor academic results. 

The League of Education Voters is insulting hardworking taxpayers, instead of thanking them for supporting public schools.

Governor: Reform state government to bring it into the 21st century

January 14, 2009 in Blog

Today Governor Gregoire delivered her second inaugural address. The section of her speech on government reform was music to my ears:

And one thing we have to do together is reform state government to
bring it into the 21st century, and soon. At very basic levels,
businesses are struggling to reform, to change the way they do business because they
simply must to survive. And our business leaders tell me that American
companies, large and small, will emerge from this recession forever
changed.

We have to do the same. And that’s government reform.

This is our chance to reform state government to make it a more nimble and relevant partner in a new state economy.

Ladies and gentlemen, we need to reboot!

Over the decades, state government has evolved — layer upon layer upon
layer. But too much of what served the people well in 1940 or 1960 or
1990 does not serve the people well in the 21st century.

There are sacred cows standing in the way. There are political
roadblocks. But let’s step up to the challenge for the people who sent
us here. For example, we have some 470 separate boards and commissions
across numerous agencies.

Is there anybody in this chamber, or this state, who believes we need
any more than half of 470 boards and commissions to serve the people of
Washington? There are almost 60 involved with the Department of Social
and Health Services alone.

And that’s not the only issue we face. For instance, we have three
agencies managing natural resources, each with its own scientist
standing in the same Washington stream.

We need to reform, and we will.

We need a lean, nimble state government serving our people in the 21st century.

We know we can do it because in some cases we already have.

Today, almost 40 percent of license tabs are renewed online, saving hassles and gas.

We can close 26 licensing offices across the state while extending
hours of operation at the 10 most popular locations. We are finding new
ways to serve our customers. And customer service is what it’s all
about.

Today, 18,000 full-time students at our community and technical
colleges are earning course credits online. It would take an additional
four community colleges to offer all those classes the old-fashioned
way.

Thousands of people go online to check the balance on their food stamp
debit card. And more than half of small business owners are filing
their state taxes online.

I ask you, if we can serve our motorists, our businesses, our students
and our poor with 21st century technology, why can’t we serve all
citizens in ways that are more convenient for them, and cheaper and
more effective for government?

The answer is, we can. The answer is, we will!

I’m putting the finishing touches on a package of reforms for you to
consider this session. I’m asking you to act on them this year. It will
take courage.

But the time has come to put our sacred cows out to pasture forever.

I can’t reform government all by myself. For starters, I’ve asked
Auditor Sonntag to help us figure out ways to sunset boards and
commissions and to help us establish a 21st century way of doing
business.

I am also partnering with business and labor, state employees, citizens, and you, to get the job done.

We need to make sure we have a government for the 21st century so our
workers and businesses can compete with anyone in the world.

I couldn't agree more.

No more state Sunshine Committee?

January 14, 2009 in Blog

With the 2009 Session less than a week old numerous open government bills have already been introduced. Not all of them will be greeted with open arms by the state's defenders of the people's right to know. Perhaps the most surprising proposal is SB 5119: Eliminating the public exemptions accountability committee.

This proposal would repeal a 2007 law creating the state Sunshine Committee. According to the Attorney General's Office:

Voters approved the Public Disclosure Act by initiative in 1972. At the time, the act included only 10 exemptions from disclosure. Today, there are at least 300 exemptions (provided by Legislative staff).

Attorney General Rob McKenna requested a bill during the 2007 Legislative session to establish a Blue-Ribbon Committee to review all!
exemptions to the Public Disclosure Act on an annual basis. State Bill 5435 became law on July 22, 2007 creating the Public Records Exemptions Accountability Committee. The "Sunshine Committee" will make recommendations to repeal or amend exemptions to the Public Records Act.

According to SB 5119, however:

. . . the legislature finds the committee's review of exemptions has proven to be unproductive and, given the economic climate we are currently experiencing, it is an unnecessary and wasteful expenditure of time and resources. Additionally, the legislature finds that the committee has not acted efficiently or effectively in carrying out its mandated charge and has provided, at most, limited guidance to the legislature. Therefore the legislature concludes that the continuation of the public records exemptions accountability committee does not serve the public interest.

Another propos!
al likely to cause the open government community heartburn is !
SB 5130: Regarding prisoner access to public records.

Other proposals to keep an eye on:

Here are the Washington Policy Center's recommendations for open government reforms from our Policy Guide:

  1. Create a Public Records Ombudsman authorized to enforce the Public Records Act.
  2. Clarify the use of the attorney client-privilege exemption.
  3. Create criminal penalties for willful violation of the Public Records Act. 
  4. Require audio taping of executive sessions. 
  5. The legislature should make itself subject to the Public Records Act and Open Public Meetings Act. 
  6. Adopt a constitutional amendment placing the preamble of the Public Records Act into the constitution, and require a 60 percent vote of lawmakers to enact a new exemption from disclosure to take effect.

Property tax transparency

January 12, 2009 in Blog

The 2009 Legislative Session is officially underway. If the first day is any indication, it appears property taxes will receive their fair share of attention with numerous bills introduced to reform the way property taxes are calculated and raised. One of the more interesting proposals is HB 1057.

Under the simple description of "Relating to ballot title information," HB 1057 reads (in-part):

If the referendum or question relates to a property tax levy, the ballot title must include a comparison of the aggregate financial impact between the taxing district's levy, if any, in the immediately preceding year and the current ballot, in both dollar and percentage change terms. Ballot questions under RCW 84.55.050 must include an estimate of the financial impact in the first year of the levy increase as compared to the taxing district's last levy, in bot!
h dollar and percentage terms.

Translation: Property tax ballot measures would need to provide context for the cost of passage.

Reading this bill I immediately thought of WPC's proposal for a tax transparency website to help provide citizens details on the various taxing districts they are subject to.

Additional details here:
Taxation Disclosure Act
What taxes we pay: People's database
State revenue flow requires transparency

Economic Stimulus for the Rest of Us

January 12, 2009 in Blog

A great op-ed today in the Seattle Times from a small business owner who is asking that small businesses not be left behind as policymakers talk about stimulating the economy. They are not asking to be bailed out or for special concessions. Small businesses are struggling right along side the banks and automakers that are asking for handouts but small businesses do not have the clout to receive bailout packages. Nor do they want them.

Instead, most are asking that rules, regulations and taxes be taken a look at and reduced when feasible -- anything to make the cost of running a business a little less. When the cost of business goes down, there is more left over for retaining employees, holding on to critical benefits, or expanding productivity -- good for both the consumer and the employee.

At a C!
ityClub
luncheon last week, Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown indicated that her state economic stimulus package should be released tomorrow (Tuesday, January 13th). I hope that the policymakers crafting that package focus on the important competitiveness issues that will help retain small businesses and therefore employees, by making sure the cost of conducting business in Washington state gets no worse.

We'll see.

WashingtonVotes.org is the Best Way to Follow Lawmakers as They Tackle $5+ Billion Budget Shortfall

January 9, 2009 in Blog

As the 2009 Legislative Session starts on Monday, WashingtonVotes.org rolls out its enhanced 2.0 website that increases user accessibility and function.

WashingtonVotes.org is a free website that provides concise, plain-English, objective descriptions of every bill, amendment and vote of the Washington legislature. The site's searchable electronic database, by issue or bill number, allows users to learn about every action of the legislature within 24 hours of its occurrence.

Citizens interested in particular bills and issues such as health care, education or taxes can also register to receive daily e-mail alerts of legislative action on those bills and issues.

This information is completely non-partisan, non-ideological and free to the user. Users can also easily find who their legislator is and the latest bills on a specific subject and follow the progress of those bills. The website also includes an archive of past bills going back to the 2001 Legislative Session.

To learn more visit WashingtonVotes.org.  

Filling in the gaps on climate change and famine

January 8, 2009 in Blog

The Seattle Times today writes about a study arguing that "Global Warming May Cause Famine." The reporter, Sandi Doughton, does a good job of reporting, drawing out comments from the authors and others. A closer look at the report, its authors and the claims is revealing.

When searing temperatures blasted Western Europe in 2003, more than 50,000 people died and harvests of wheat, animal fodder and fruit fell by up to a third.

While Europe did see tens of thousands of deaths from heat in 2003, it had more to do with the failure of the health system and lack of air conditioning. Similar heat waves have hit the US without the huge mortality. Further, there are far more deaths annually from cold than heat, so even if people don't adapt (which they always do), an increase in heat will probably reduce the number of temperature-related deaths.

"I'm not worried about Greenland sliding into the sea. I'm not worried about sea levels going up," said UW atmospheric sciences professor David Battisti.

Don't expect to hear this quote again in the future. Just one year ago, the Times wrote a story about a study on sea level rise from climate change where "even a rise of 6 inches" would increase the threat of flooding and damage. Al Gore spends quite a bit of time in An Inconvenient Truth dramatizing the threat from sea level rise. The Climate Action Team cites sea level rise as a significant concern. It will be interesting to watch climate alarmists embrace this report but dismiss this quote.

"We are headed for a completely out-of-bounds situation for growing food crops in the future," said report co-author Rosamond Naylor, director of Stanford's Program on Food Security and the Environment.

What credibility should we put in the claim of Ms. Naylor? Probably the same amount we should put in the words of her colleague and occasional co-author Paul Ehrlich who said in 1969 that "By 1980 the United States will see its life expectancy drop to 42 because of pesticides, and by 1999 its population would drop to 22.6 million" and "I would take even money that England will not exist in the year 2000." Predicting catastrophe is a habit that dies hard.

"You're talking about hundreds of millions of additional people looking for food because they won't be able to find it where they find it now," [Battisti] said.

This indicates that crops will grow in some places where they don't now. In other words, this is an issue of trade. Further, the UN and others predict that in 2100 the average income in developing countries will be about $60,000 a year, higher than the US average currently. Thus, their prediction only comes true if the world makes no economic progress during the next century. Compare 2009, for instance, to 1909 to see how ludicrous that notion is. Realize also that even as world population has grown, the absolute number of people in poverty has fallen showing how dramatic economic growth has been, especially in developing countries.

Michael Glantz, a political scientist who studies the social impacts of climate and climate change, said the study raises some good points, but the developing world faces so many immediate problems it's difficult to worry about what will happen in five decades or more. "When I think about 2100 and climate-change impact on food security, I just glaze over," said Glantz, who directs the Consortium for Capacity Building at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

A voice of reason. What is behind Glanz's statement is a recognition that government policy has more to do with famine and poverty than climate change will. The major famines of the last century have been politically created, from the millions in Ukraine who died during Stalin's forced collectivization to the current conflict-created famine in Darfur. Climate change is a challenge, but the notion that we can predict the impact of 2.5 C of warming 100 years from now and how it will impact countries after a century of political and economic change is dubious.

Scientists should continue to offer sound estimates of future climate change and the potential changes that it will cause. When it comes to making decisions about how to deal with those challenges, however, it is a question best addressed by applying values, politics and economics.

Two sides to every story

January 8, 2009 in Blog

A new US News and World Report ranks Washington state as the Best State to Start a Business. The study is pretty light on details and actually is a composite of the Small Business and Entrepreneurship Council's Small Business Survival Index 2008 and the Kauffman Foundation's 2008 New State Economy Index.

I've written ad nauseum about the many foundations, organizations and media outlets that rank states' business climates so while I won't spend time debunking or validating the US News' report, I will say two things.

One, I'm glad that the report points out that some of the high rankings are more political in nature. Issues like !
Washington ranking high in "steps toward energy efficiency and using alternative energy sources" is what might be referred to as a "low priority" to most entrepreneurs wishing to open a business in this state. True, we do have relatively low energy costs, thanks mostly to hydro and nuclear power. But Washington's high ranking in energy efficiency and alternative energy sources should rank us higher in a ranking of states that have the best energy efficiency and alternative energy policies, not a ranking of best states to start a business.

One of the other main points of the study highlights Washington's very low taxes -- citing no capital gains tax nor personal or corporate income taxes. It makes no mention of our B&O tax that, when converted to a more traditional corporate tax, ranks as the second highest corporate tax rate !
in the nation.

I suppose one way to look at this nice ranking is that if policymakers want to protect this number one ranking they should think twice before raising business taxes (this includes fees!) this legislative session. 

WA's minimum wage highest in nation -- supporters still want more

January 7, 2009 in Blog

Once again, Washington state is leading the nation in the category of minimum wage. The state's minimum wage rose by 6% from $8.07 to $8.55 starting January 1st. That was the largest jump since Initiative 688 tied the wage to the consumer price index for urban wage earners and clerical workers and upped the minimum wage from $5.70 in 1999 to $6.50 in 2000.

The Tri-City Herald opined this last weekend that maybe our state's minimum wage law should be reviewed. After all, it seems that most folks are foregoing pay raises or even cost-of-living adjustments as the national economy crawls along.

But rather than start the maelstrom of suggesting that the minimum wage be cut, why not talk about how to reform it as we move forward. How about a cap at $8.55 until the economy begins to grow again. Increasing the cost of labor, while the rest of the private sector world is trying to save money, de!
fies what I would call "reality." WPC has written and studied the minimum wage for years now because hiking labor costs 6% on small businesses that are already struggling is a major concern.

The Yakima Herald also ran a story on the minimum wage, saying that there are "two sides" to it. That is true. There are indeed folks trying to support their family on minimum wages. But they are the vast minority and they won't earn minimum wages for very long. Again, I'll refer curious readers wanting to know more to our 2007 study on the living wage proposal for Spokane.

And as icing on the cake, rumor has it that backers of the Spokane living wage prop!
osal, who failed to get enough signatures for the ballot in 20!
07 will try again in 2009.

Obama pursuing federal GMAP

January 7, 2009 in Blog

Although Governor Gregoire wasn't in Washington D.C. earlier this week to meet with President-elect Obama as speculated, it appears he has been paying attention to one of the Governor's priorities: GMAP (Government Management Accountability and Performance). According to Government Executive.com:

President-elect Barack Obama could name the first federal chief performance officer as early as Wednesday, and observers are urging him to choose a candidate with superior managerial skills and deep knowledge of the federal bureaucracy.

During his presidential campaign, Obama vowed to establish a "SWAT team" led by a CPO dedicated to working with agencies to improve results for federal programs and e!
liminate waste and inefficiency. The CPO will "work with federal agencies to set tough performance targets and hold managers responsible for progress," Obama said in September 2008, pledging to meet regularly with Cabinet officials to review their agencies' progress . . .

Robert Shea, former OMB associate director for administration and government performance, said he believes OMB has developed a strong foundation on which the Obama administration can build, but that establishing a CPO position in the White House might help overcome the challenges the agency faces in integrating performance initiatives with the programs they're designed to improve.

"Having a chief performance officer in the White House reporting to the president gives you an opportunity to make the people responsible for achieving the president's priorities pay more attention to the importance of management in achieving those goals," said Shea, now a dir!
ector with the global public sector of consultant firm Grant T!
hornton LLP.

Hopefully Congress and the state Legislature will see the potential to create their own performance teams and start to focus public hearings not on how much money an agency wants but instead on agency performance for current taxpayer investments.

The natural next step would be to place high level performance indicators directly into the budget to help focus expectations for the money appropriated.

Speaking of GMAP, check out the new performance "DataView" website. We sent the GMAP Director a letter last year encouraging a move to this type of database. 

Searchable stimulus

January 6, 2009 in Blog

Maybe, just maybe, our federal leaders will really embrace transparency this year. There is some positive news coming out of President-elect Obama's recent meeting with congressional leadership. According to ABC News:

Democratic and Republican sources tell ABC News that President-elect
Obama's meeting with the bipartisan congressional leadership of the
House and Senate went well with some quick agreement on the need for
expeditious action as well as oversight and transparency for the
pending, yet-to-be-drafted multibillion dollar stimulus package.

House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, argued that public
dissatisfaction with the Troubled Asset Relief Program money to help
stabilize the nation's financial systems and the way it was rammed
through the Congress demands more transparency and accountability with
the stimulus bill.

"I agree with you," the President-elect said, adding later that he
would "demand complete transparency and accountability in doing it." ·

House Minority Whip Eric Cantor, R-Vir., suggested said the bill
should be put on the Internet a week before Congress votes on it.

Mr. Obama smiled and said something along the lines of, "maybe if I
was better at faking it , I'd say, 'Great idea -- we'll take you up on
that.' But we've actually talked about this idea."

Obama turned it over to incoming White House chief of staff Rahm
Emanuel who essentially said they would do the Republicans one better.
They're planning a Google-like search function to show every program
funded by the stimulus package, whether it comes in under or
over-budget, whether it is meeting its intended purpose, and how many
jobs it is creating.

This is a fantastic idea and should be expanded to the full federal budget. In fact, it's not a bad idea for the state budget either and would be a natural complement to the new state budget website.

Hat tip: Sam Taylor

State parks performance audit

January 5, 2009 in Blog

Against the backdrop of proposed closures to state parks, on December 23 the State Auditor released a performance audit of the Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission.

According to the audit:

The Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission has made extensive efforts to improve the parks system and facilities through its Centennial 2013 plan. The audit found Parks is at risk of failing to achieve all of the goals it communicated to citizens in the Centennial 2013 Plan . . .

1.    The Commission’s strategic plan lacks some key elements that can impact its achievement of its vision and goals.

2.    The Commission needs to make improvements in governance to ensure it meets its vision, goals and objectives.

3.    The Agency does not have a performance management system that
provides reliable information to assess its progress in meeting goals
and that allows it to make budget and operating decisions.

4.    The Agency’s information technology systems do not support efficient operations.

5.    The Agency has not realized the efficiency and economy in its
payroll and human resource processes that they expected to gain from
HRMS.

6.    The Agency’s decentralized approach to governance and lack of
documentation can lead to practices and procedures that do not comply
with state law, agency policy, and do not promote the most efficient
and economical use of state resources.

A public hearing is scheduled on the audit this Wednesday at 1 p.m.

On a positive note the Department of Revenue received its sixteenth-straight clean audit report today. Here is an excerpt from DOR's press release:

The annual audit issued today by State Auditor Brian Sonntag contained no findings, or problems with how the Department processed $18.2 billion in tax revenue annually, including 96 percent of all state general fund tax collections and all local sales taxes.

“This outstanding record is indicative of management’s interest in compliance with the laws and regulations applicable to your agency,” Sonntag wrote in his cover letter to the audit.  “It’s important to give special recognition to agencies that consistently exhibit a commitment to solid accounting practices and systems of internal control.”

Sonntag said he appreciated the cooperation and assistance provided by Revenue staff!
as his auditors examined the agency’s extensive operations.