Washington Policy Blog

Traffic relief, mobility, market demand, freight & public/private partnerships

April 14, 2009 in Blog

Five Principles of Responsible Transportation Policy

Policy Center encourages five principles of responsible transportation
policy to help guide policymakers in returning to a system that
provides people’s freedom of movement.biz

• Tie spending to performance measures, like
traffic relief and economic development

• Respect people’s freedom of mobility

• Deploy resources based
on market demand

• Improve freight mobility

• Use Public/Private Partnerships

Read the 5 Principles of Responsible Transportation Policy legislative memo here.

You can also view or download the Five Principles brochure here.

The Senate takes an important step to restore arm's length transactions with unions

April 14, 2009 in Blog

Last night the Senate voted 30-20 to pass an amendment to a bill, HB 1329, which considerably slowed down the union-led effort  to force small day care workers into a union.  A study will now be undertaken to determine if collective bargaining improves quality of day care or benefits for workers, or not.

Richard Roesler's blog points out that critics of the bill were also uncomfortable with a provision of the bill that would have taken union dues directly out of the state's subsidy payments, instead of directly from workers.  (This involves a considerable sum of money---$6.1 million in dues from subsidy payments to the union of family day care providers.)

Last legislative session, we pointed out in the Seattle PI here that the proposed bill would turn the state into a bill collector for the union, essentially allowing the state and union to act as one party for the purpose of dues collection, threatening the interest of the public and taxpayers to understand what is really going on.  I said : "When you have a contract, you are supposed to have an arm's length relationship so that the interests of the parties are clearly defined and not veiled to the public."

Another analogy can be made here to illegal contracts of adhesion, which are contracts so imbalanced in favor of one party over the other that there is a strong implication it was not freely bargained, for example, a rich landlord imposing onerous contract provisions on a poor tenant, or a large and powerful union imposing onerous contract provisions on small day care centers.

By passing this amendment, our legislators have demonstrated their understanding of the need to put a powerful union at arm's length from the state.  The legislature is wise to prevent the deduction of union dues from state subsidy payments.  The legislature should consider that the same lack of arm's length, the same appearance of impropriety, exists when the state directs day care centers to deduct union dues from workers' paychecks. 

Every other professional organization (Bar Association, the American Institute of Architects, the Professional Engineers, the Association of General Contractors, to name just a few) has to collect dues from its members without help from the state.   Why is the state in the business of helping unions collect their dues?

Legislators should extend this arm's length thinking to other contracts with other unions.  Local school districts automatically deduct teachers' union dues from their paychecks.  This allows powerful unions to act like rich landlords, forcing school districts to agree to contracts they cannot afford. 

State unemployment rate now 9.2%

April 14, 2009 in Blog

The state's Employment Security Department released March unemployment rate numbers for Washington this morning. The rate is now 9.2%. This is almost a ten percent rise above February's 8.4%. The federal unemployment rate for the month of March was 8.5%. 

It is important to remember that unemployment rate numbers are a lagging economic indicator -- meaning this is a look backwards to assess the past month in regards to job levels. There are other economic indicators that are more forward looking (ala stock market, construction permit levels, etc.).

Earlier this year, Washington state Economic and Forecast Council director Arun Raha indicated that he expects the unemployment rate to top out around 10% in 2010. This is despite the fact that some areas of the economy see!
m to be bottoming out. Even if the economy "turns around" in 2009 3rd quarter, don't be surprised to see a continuation of jobs lost.

The U.S. economy has lost just over 5.1 million jobs since it's December 2007 peak. Washington's nonfarm payroll has declined by almost 100,000 jobs since March 2008.
According to the ESD release, practically every sector of the economy lost jobs. The construction industry was hit hardest; accounting for half the job losses in the goods-producing industry and March marked the 14th consecutive month with employment declines in this sector. The financial services industry also was hit very hard, losing 9,000 jobs. Professional and business services shed 16,100 jobs. 
But government reflected year-over-year growth of 4,400 job!
s. The federal government expanded by 1,600 jobs, state govern!
ment by 1,100 jobs and local employment by 1,700 jobs. 
Back in March 2008, Washington's unemployment rate was 4.8%. Today's numbers represent a 92% increase. 

Green Bonds - are they worth it?

April 14, 2009 in Blog

Today the House Capital Budget Committee will consider HB 2334, asking voters to approve a $3 billion package to fund capital improvement projects that promise increased health, safety and energy efficiency in public facilities.

Supporters of the legislation claim the bonds would be repaid in part from cost savings of improved energy efficiency.  In addition, proponents highlight requirements to use performance based contracting to achieve the savings.

Unfortunately, these claims are misleading and could potentially threaten the bond ratings of other investments.

Proponents of HB 2334 are wrong to tie promises of energy savings to cost repayments through performance based contracting.  Performance based contracting was established as a tool to ensure that, when a contractor makes promises through a contract, results are achieved.

The State's General Administration (GA) website provides a good explanation of how the State has used performance based contracts on a variety of projects, with promising results.

According to the site about 100 projects have used this system.  These projects have cost taxpayers more than $150 million to complete with a claimed savings of roughly $11.5 million annually.  At this rate of return it would take more than thirteen years to pay back the costs of all of these projects.  These numbers, however, have several flaws.

For instance, they are not audited and it is difficult to promise actual energy savings.  When a building uses the performance based contract process, an inspection will identify what systems can be changed to achieve greater efficiency.  If the agency chooses to change light fixtures, a contractor can promise savings from changing each fixture because they are essentially changing light bulbs for more energy efficient bulbs.  The contractor, however, does not guarantee that the light fixture will be utilized or operated in the same manner as the previous fixture, and, according to the GA, is unlikely to promise a return on investment through cost repayment.

The "annual savings" identified by the GA's spreadsheet are snapshots in time and are not meant to predict actual savings.  The GA is honest that these numbers do not represent actual, audited energy savings.  Given the difficulty they are having identifying those savings in the current, modest program, how likely is it that they will do better when the program spends thirteen times as much in a two year period over what was spend during the past 10 year period?

Given the amorphous nature of the energy savings estimates, is it wise to base the State's bond payments on hoped-for, but hard to recover, energy savings?

While it may be true that the money spent will provide greater health or safety improvements, there is no data available to suggest that this results in cost savings.  In fact, as our research shows (What Washington's "Green" Schools Tell Us about HB 2334's $3 Billion Spendnig Plan), such modifications to systems that would improve air quality, like an HVAC system run more frequently to bring in fresh air, often results in higher energy cost.  Savings have yet to be realized as was promised in previous energy saving packages.  The performance data available thus far for "green" schools provides legislators with a valuable tool for better understanding the promises of cost savings and energy efficiencies in HB 2334.

In addition, the proposal to increase the indebtedness of the State has caught the attention of Democrat State Treasurer Jim McIntire.  In a statement regarding the $3 billion bond package he noted that, "added debt called for in HB 2334 is too much" and that, "It would threaten our credit rating and would affect the rest of our investments in transportation and public infrastructure."  Harming the credit rating could lead to an increase in rates and additional cost to the taxpayers, minimizing further any potential benefits from the proposed projects.

Finally, if these projects will truly deliver the claimed savings, one has to wonder why they were not funded when the state had surpluses.  The State's 2007-09 biennial Capital Budget is $4.6 billion and the 2009-11 proposed biennial Capital Budget before the House is $2.9 billion with the bonds making up approximately half of these budgets.  Increasing the debt to fund projects that have not met priorities when funding was available makes the return on investment even more unlikely.

As the House Capital Budget Committee considers HB 2334 it is important to understand that the proposal before them over promises on what it can deliver.

Retraining teachers has not worked to improve student learning

April 13, 2009 in Blog

Today, the Port Orchard Independent published two letters reacting to my editorial "Our schools need better teachers, not more money." The first letter concludes that "the entire education system is out of whack, and money isn't what it will take to fix it."  The second letter states that in order to have good teachers, we have to pay extra education dollars for "coaching, training, development, performance management, classroom audits" and such.  

More money will not fix our schools.  Only better hiring and spending decisions at the local school level will improve our schools.

We have already spent billions of dollars to raise teacher quality.  Between 1993 and 2008 the legislature spent over $5 billion in 80 education reform programs aimed at teacher training and other efforts--see Appendix to our Education Reform Plan.

Yet only 19 students out of every 100 manage to earn an associate or four year college degree. Many of the kids who make it to college drop out, as they have not been prepared for the rigor of college by their K-12 education.

As the most important factor for student learning is the quality of the teacher, why can't we allow principals to hire the best possible teachers (by not limiting the hiring pool to those who hold a credential) for the classroom?  And why can't we allow principals to control their budgets, so they can spend education dollars in the best way possible to reduce student loads on classroom teachers--a reform which is now working in other states to raise achievement?

Pouring more money into a dysfunctional, broken system will not improve our schools. 

Paid Family Leave to be Officially Delayed?

April 13, 2009 in Blog

That looks to be the case. Senate Bill 6158 delays the system implementation date from October 1, 2009 to October 1, 2012. It is evident the legislature recognizes the financial difficulty the state is in and that piling another expensive government benefit on top of everything would be irresponsible.

But by simply delaying for three years its implementation, policymakers are gambling the state and national economy will have turned around enough that no one will notice this potential payroll tax. Chances are good that the "Great Recession" will be a blip in our rearview mirror -- and besides, there's always less resistance to expanding government when times are good.

We'd rather see it permanently go away -- to be handled by companies on their own -- but at least there seems to be an acknowledgement that new and expansive government !
programs have a direct cost on citizens and therefore should be avoided when times are tough.

Technology tax creep

April 13, 2009 in Blog

A New York Post story hit the news today about how wireless phone subscribers are paying up to 33 percent in federal, state and city levies. 

But this isn't news to the 260+ million wireless subscribers in the United States. Every month we get our bill and see the "government fees and taxes" section and have no idea what, if anything, that money goes towards. We simply shrug our shoulders and write out the checks.

Which is exactly what they want you to do.

A tax analyst the Post used to look at the information hit the nail on the head:

"There's a tendency to feel no one is going to notice this little tax...[policymakers] can do this without a lot of pushback from their constitu!

A report from 2007, published by the Beacon Hill Institute and the Heartland Institute, breaks down which cities have the highest taxes and fees on communications services. Seattle ranked competitively in the "Cable Video Services," and "Wireline Telephone Service" categories. But Seattle's "Wireless Telephone Service" tax rate greatly surpassed the national average. In fact, Seattle's ranking was 5th worst in the nation at a hefty 18.29% (national average: 11.78%).

As policymakers on all levels of government look to raise revenue to deal with their overspending and down economy, watch your communications services. I know I am not the only one who notices slight upticks in taxes and fees every couple of months on my cell phone, cable TV or broadband cable bills. It's often so slight that you wo!
nder if your brain isn't playing tricks on you.


But your brain is perfectly fine. 

More and more money for education doesn't mean better education for kids

April 10, 2009 in Blog

Since 2004, lawmakers have increased spending on K-12 education by 30%, from $7.7 billion to $10.1 billion.  Lawmakers have found it easier to ride the wave of increased tax collections during the good times than to pass substantive, systemic school management reforms that produce better academic results for kids.

Students have not benefited from this 30% increase in school spending.  Today's Alliance for Excellent Education conference held in Seattle, and sponsored by the College Success Foundation, revealed that 70% of Washington 8th graders are reading below grade level, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

The chart below shows that despite a 30% increase in education spending, academic outcomes for students haven't improved at all.  More spending simply doesn't help.  School administrators need to make better use of the money taxpayers are giving them now, not just ask for more.



Does switching from driving to transit really make sense?

April 10, 2009 in Blog

The American Public Transportation Association (APTA) has a new study that shows how much money a household could save by switching to public transit. For example, the APTA study estimates that if a Seattle household traded in one car and used transit they would save about $10,447 per year.

The study conveniently explains the methodology used to estimate their figures:

APTA then compares the average monthly transit fare to the average cost
of driving.  The cost of driving is calculated using the 2009 AAA
average cost of driving formula.  AAA cost of driving formula is based
on variable costs and fixed costs.  The variable costs include the cost
of gas, maintenance and tires.  The fixed costs include insurance,
license registration, depreciation and finance charges.  The comparison
also uses the average mileage of a mid-size auto at 23.4 miles per
gallon and the price for self-serve regular unleaded as recorded by AAA
on April 8 at $2.047 per gallon.  The analysis also assumes that a
person will drive an average of 15,000 miles per year.  The savings
assume a household gives up one car.

There is one variable however, the study failed to account for: the value of time. One of the most significant tradeoffs with switching from driving to using public transit is the extra time involved. For example, commuting door-to-door from south King County to downtown Seattle takes about 1 hour in a motor vehcile. (obviously, this estimate can change drastically depending on where you live. Switching to public transit would take 2 hours to make the same trip, door-to-door.

Everyone has their own opinion on how much an hour is worth to them. If I valuled my time at $35 per hour, and added two extra hours of commute time, the cost of moving to public transit would be about $19,600 per year. This means it would cost me about $9,123 per year to switch from driving to public transit.  

The following table shows how much two extra hours of commute time per day (annualized) would mean to you, depeding o!
n your personal value of time:

of 1 hour
Extra cost per day
from using Transit
Annual cost, based on
260 work days per year 
$15         $30         $7,800
$20         $40         $10,400
$35         $70         $19,600
$50         $100         $28,000
$100         $200         $56,000

Assuming your commute time would increase two hours per day, you would have to value your time at less than $20 per hour to make the switch from driving to transit make sense.

Overspending caused our $9 billion deficit

April 9, 2009 in Blog

Lawmakers in Olympia are wrestling with a $9 billion budget deficit, which raises an important question: How did we get in this mess in the first place?  The conventional answer is the lousy national economy.  But some states don't have deficits and others have shortfalls that are proportionately much more manageable than ours.  Another response is that tax revenues are "down."  But the state will collect as much money in the next budget as in the last one.  We do not have a deficit because Washington citizens pay too little in taxes.

The clear answer is overspending.  In recent years lawmakers and the governor increased permanent spending by 33%, raising the state's financial obligations to unsustainable levels.  It might have worked had the good times continued indefinitely, but when the recession hit poor judgment by state leaders had already placed Washington in a weakened financial position.  The!
chart below shows how the state's general fund spending has increased over time, especially in the 2003-05 and 2005-07 budgets.  If state leaders had not overreached we would not have a deficit today, or at least the budget crisis would not be so severe.


Who's your daddy?

April 9, 2009 in Blog

There's no question that our state legislators work very hard. And during the long session (105-day) I know that things can get a little testy. Exhaustion can lead to making poor decisions. And so I'm willing to laugh a bit at some ideas I think are done in jest. 

But that doesn't mean I am not concerned about the precedent legislators are setting.

The latest example of this comes from HB 2337, which basically takes Boeing to task for wanting a better business climate for itself and its second 787 line, otherwise it is considering leaving to greener pastures.

The bill lists several national rankings that put Washington near the top of states with the best business climate. We've largely!
debunked these rankings in the past
. And the legislation goes on to direct the soon-to-be-formed state Depart of Commerce to:

"consider the societal benefits of unleashing the innovative, creative and entrepreneurial talents of the Washington state workforce to 'innovate here' through...the aerospace industry."

That sounds all well and good, despite the fact that it assumes the private sector isn't already doing just that. The legislation also directs Commerce to conduct a worldwide search for potential aerospace investors -- specifically encouraging direct foreign investment; and to bring them here by offering the same goodies that Boeing received as a result of the 2003 legislation.

But the most amusing part comes from the bill's sponsor, Rep. Mara!
lyn Chase
, who said that 

"We should do everything we can to keep Boeing here, within reason. Boeing is a good citizen when they behave. Sometimes they need to be taken outside the woodshed and spanked." (h/t Jerry Cornfield, Everett Herald)

So, let me get this straight. When a large business complains that the business climate it functions in is unsuitable for future expansion, it's the legislature's job to apply the smack down? Or, perhaps policymakers can feel cavalier enough to make their own threats against Boeing, apparently forgetting that Boeing already moved its headquarters to Chicago.

If Boeing, and its supporting subcontractors, skip town, why would other aerospace companies m!
ove in to take its place? I highly doubt Airbus and its parent company EADS will say to themselves, "hey, we're struggling just as much as Boeing. Let's invest billions into an infrastructure Boeing couldn't make work!"

And how about including in the legislation this independent Deloitte report that says Washington's aerospace industry faces more disadvantages than advantages by staying here?

I'd say that between the spanking in this bill and HB 2316, which prohibits threatening the relocation of manufacturing jobs based on pending legislation, that we have certainly rolled out the welcome mat for any future aerospace or other manufacturing companies thi!
nking about relocating or expanding in Washington. 

iv>I guess it's all fun and games until Boeing and its 70,000+ jobs head off into the sunset.

The importance of intellectual property in today's open source world

April 9, 2009 in Blog

As governments scramble to look for ways to cut costs over the next couple of years one area that is being highlighted is information technology (I.T.). Our post-industrial society, and therefore government, rely on the rapid transfer of information. The broad, indiscriminate dissemination of information helps keep governments accountable and citizens informed. This is a good thing.

And so a movement has formed that supports open-sourced software that is largely free to the user. These are programs such as the very popular Firefox internet browser and OpenOffice, a free suite of office tools (similar to Microsoft's dominate Office). 

I use Firefox, it's a great browser, and I use a lot of other open-source programs for my computer and mobile phone. I am not a developer, but if I were, I would apprecia!
te the openness and ability to take the core building blocks of a software program and be able to customize it to my specific needs.

But this is where things get interesting. Some proponents in the open source community are baiting policymakers with promises that mandating open source software will save taxpayers millions of dollars. But this is disingenuous. As the saying goes, "there is no such thing as a free lunch," and this axiom applies here as well.

Unfortunately, many in the open source crowd are also supporters of the "anti Intellectual Property" movement. They are against patents, property protection, profit motives, or basically anything to do with making money off of your idea and work. These are also largely the same folks advocating for the utopian Network Neutrality -- asserting that Internet access is a fundamental human right.

Open source software requires a lot of work to tailor-make it to!
your, the customer, needs. This means companies can offer ope!
n source programs to your department at a very low price, but then sell the consulting services in order to actually make it work to your exact needs. Proprietary software, ala Microsoft Office, is ready to use right out of the box. You pay more for it upfront, but then spend a lot less time, if any, customizing it on the back end. This is because you are paying for their Intellectual Property, as opposed to the open source programs, where you pay for their customization skills.

Personally, I think that we need both systems. A robust IP protection system in order to encourage proprietary development, and an open source system that harnesses the power of the community (for a great example of this see Apple's iPhone SDK and App store). I like having the choice. And governments should as well. In fact, several have already looked at mandating an open source only policy and have!
rejected the notion because of the limits it puts government IT crews into (see Texas' report on the subject).

Lastly, Raymond J. Keating, Chief Economist for the Small Business & Entrepreneurship Council hits the nail right on the head:

"Providing a clear and stable intellectual property system is critical to innovation, entrepreneurship and economic growth...After all, patents spur innovation in two ways. First, they incentivize invention and innovation by assuring that inventors reap the rewards of their inventions. Second, they in way stop others from finding better ways to better serve the market."


Read more about this issue:

Allow universities to set market-based user fees

April 8, 2009 in Blog

Mark A. Emmert, president of the University of Washington, had an op-ed in The Seattle Times today requesting that lawmakers allow the state's higher education institutions to raise tuition fees. Emmert noted:

Obviously, Washington has a severe budget shortfall, and balancing
the budget requires very difficult decisions. The magnitude of the
proposed higher-education cuts, however, goes far past what can be
managed through efficiency measures and new ways of providing
high-quality education.

The leaders of our four-year colleges and universities understand
that our schools must take cuts. But we also know that we can keep
students coming to school and graduating on time if we are simply given
more flexibility on tuition. We can help our students and our state
without new state money. Moreover, we can fix much of this problem
without denying access to students because of their income or family

The UW has the lowest tuition of any of its peers and is one of the best bargains in the country. With increased financial aid and the expanded federal tax credit, we can remain an excellent value for our families, maintain our world-class quality, and not slash the number of students we admit.

To give higher education the opportunity to resolve this crisis without requiring more state money is the only responsible thing to do. To do otherwise is to deny thousands of our citizens a chance to succeed in the knowledge economy.

This echoes an editorial that ran in The News Tribune earlier this week

There's a partial remedy at hand: higher tuitions. Emmert and others have sought authority to raise tuition by as much as 14 percent. Lawmakers are ba!
lking. The House proposes 10 percent; the Senate, only 7 percent.

Olympia needs a mental adjustment. In good times, when direct appropriations are easier to come by, capping tuition might make sense. In this emergency, business as usual could be disastrous.

A 14 percent tuition hike would not be the burden it sounds like. With Congress expanding Pell grants and the federal tuition tax credit, the increase in financial assistance will more than offset another 14 percent in tuition - which would be $875 a year at the UW.

Without getting into the question of broader higher education reforms at this time, this is a reasonable request.

Lawmakers should allow the state's universities the full authority to set market-based user fees to fund their operations. The same holds true for state parks. This will allow general tax revenue to be freed for vital core functions.

The Governor wants to raise your property taxes

April 8, 2009 in Blog

In today's Seattle Times, Governor Gregoire urged lawmakers to lift local levy lids to allow 75 school districts to collect an additional $68 million more in local property taxes.  The Governor justifies lifting of levy lids by claiming that voters have previously approved these increases, but that the lids capped the amount voters approved. 

How does the Governor know what the voters intended?  Perhaps voters knew that the levy lid would cap their tax exposure.  Let's have a vote today on these property taxes to see what taxpayers intended:  would taxpayers approve a bailout for the governor or not?

Changing the levy lid rules now is like changing the rules in the middle of the game, violating all standards of fair play and responsible leadership. The Governor and legislature increased state spending on education by 30% since 2004, knowing that such a rate of increase was unsustainable for long.  Had the Governor and legislature restrained itself and saved more in the Rainy Day and other funds, some of these school districts wouldn't find themselves in financial trouble today. 

County officials can give back part of their salary to help close budget gap

April 8, 2009 in Blog

I was catching up on my reading and noticed an article from the April 2nd Everett Herald, “County workers agree to take unpaid
time to avoid layoffs.”
  Reporter Noah Haglund says Snohomish County's elected officials told him they are cutting the pay of some employees by 3% but they are frustrated because they can’t lower
their own pay to help close the county’s budget gap.  Apparently an independent commission which meets once every two years sets their salaries.  O.K., they can't increase their own pay, but what is to prevent them from lowering their pay by just voluntarily
returning part of their salary to the county? 
For example, Executive Aaron Reardon could simply write a personal check
for $4,410 (3% of his $147,000 salary) and mail it to the county treasurer.  Other elected officials could do the
same.  That way they would share equally
in the salary reduction they are suggesting for other county workers.  What could be easier?