Washington Policy Blog

Transportation choices

November 23, 2009 in Blog

Gabriel Roth, A noted transportation economist and Research Fellow at the Independent Institute, has a great tale about the government's efforts to reduce how much people drive:

On November 17 I attended a National Journal meeting addressed by Polly Trottenberg, Assistant Secretary for Transportation Policy. She told us how important it was to reduce VMT (vehicle miles of travel). After the meeting, as she was entering a chauffeured government car, I asked her why she did not take a bus. She said something about being in a hurry.
 
Can it possibly be that reducing VMT is not a thing for important people?

You might recall that our state implemented VMT reduction targets a couple years back. The first phase calls for an 18 percent reduction by 2020.

Daily light rail ridership

November 20, 2009 in Blog

Over at the Public Interest Transportation Forum, John Niles has been tracking daily light rail ridership.
Here is his chart showing daily ridership between July and October: 

Niles ridership

As Niles highlights, notice ridership has been falling since it peaked in October. Niles estimates average ridership in October was 16,129 trips per day.

But remember, trips are not riders. Trips can count the same rider multiple times in a single day. Also remember that Sound Transit estimates!
two-thirds of its light rail riders come from the existing bus system. So taking these factors into account, at its peak, light rail is only carrying about 2,688 new transit riders per day.

Executive branch needs unified voice on education priorities

November 20, 2009 in Blog

With Washington already behind the eight ball in the quest for the federal "race to the top funds," the last thing we need is for the state's executive branch to be sending conflicting signals about our commitment to accountability. Unfortunately that is exactly what is happening.

Yesterday State Superintendent of Public Instruction Randy Dorn announced his plan to delay the state's math and science graduation requirements. According to his press release:

Citing major concerns with the passing rates on the high school math and science exams, State Superintendent Randy Dorn has proposed significant changes to th!
e math and science graduation requirements. Dorn unveiled his proposal today at the annual conference of the Washington State School Directors Association.

Dorn said students and schools will need more time with new math and science learning standards that are now being implemented around the state. The new standards won’t be assessed until 2011 for math and 2012 for science. That doesn’t provide ample opportunity for the class of 2013, current ninth graders and the first class required to pass four state exams, to learn the standards, or teachers and schools to align curriculum and materials to them, he added.

“It doesn’t take a mathematician to see that we have a big problem in our state. Less than 50 percent of our 10th graders are passing the math and science exams,” said Dorn, who noted 10th graders’ passing rate on the reading and writing exams is more than 80 percent. “We need to be fair to our students and give them time to learn!
the new standards. It’s simply a matter of doing what’s r!
ight.”

This retreat from the state's graduation standards drew a strong rebuke from Governor Gregoire as noted by The Everett Herald:

"I oppose the proposal. As our state and global economies become more technically driven, we need to ensure that our students leave high school highly-trained in math and science so they can qualify for Washington state jobs or entry into training and higher education programs of their choosing.

“Our students are capable of mastering our state's standards in math and science. They have shown us their capacity to meet our expectations in the past. Schools I visited recently give me every indication that when students know the work is important they dig in and make the most of it.

“We can't lower our standards in math, nor can w!
e communicate that science is not important. We must prepare our students for their future. There is every reason to focus attention on the math and science learning needs of our students so they can succeed after high school. The Superintendent is concerned about the graduation rate. I am concerned about the bigger picture - preparing kids for life. I think parents share that concern.”

Education policy is complicated enough without having two members of the executive branch pursuing conflicting strategies and sending mixed signals to the Legislature and citizens. This latest development is just another example of why the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) should not be an independently elected office but instead should be an appointed office under the Governor's control via her cabinet. This would follow the model used !
for (in-part):

  • Secretary of Social and Health Services
  • Director of Ecology
  • Director of Labor and Industries
  • Director of Agriculture
  • Director of Financial Management
  • Secretary of Transportation
  • Director of Licensing
  • Director of General Administration
  • Director of Commerce
  • Director of Veterans Affairs
  • Director of Revenue
  • Secretary of Corrections
  • Secretary of Health
  • Director of Financial Institutions
  • Chief of the State Patrol

This type of change would address the diffused accountability under the current system. If problems arise with public education voters would know that the solution lies with the Governor. If the Governor fails to use her appointment powers to improve the management and policies of OSPI, voters could take that failure into account at election time.

Budget deficit grows to $2.6 billion

November 19, 2009 in Blog

Washington's budget outlook took another hit today with forecasted revenue dropping $760 million since the September revenue forecast. The result of this is a projected $2.6 billion deficit in the 2009-11 budget adopted earlier this year. 

According to the press release issued by the state's economist, Dr. Arun Raha:

"While growth has returned to the national and state economies, consumer confidence and more critically, consumer spending remain weak. As a result, we are experiencing a revenue-less recovery."

Responding to the news the Governor said in a press release:

"I will produce a budget balance!
d to this revenue projection because I am required to by law. We all know a budget reflects the values of our state. All options must be on the table to produce a budget that works."

The Governor, however, has ruled out calling a special session of the Legislature. 

Tax increases are not the answer and should be removed from the table as an
option to help remove any distractions from making the necessary budget
reductions.

Illustrating this point, earlier this year more than 30 economists warned state officials that raising taxes "during a recessionary period is contrary to responsible economic policy and instead will thwart the state’s economic recovery."

Several state newspapers have also called on state officials to avoid tax increases:

Though lawmakers and the Governor will be tempted to address the state's $2.6 billion budget deficit with one-time fixes, doing so is a recipe for future budget pain and the potential for the state's credit rating to be downgraded. According to Moody's October 9 report on Washington's credit outlook, the following could result in a reduction to the state's credit rating:

  • Protracted structural budget imbalance.
  • Increased reliance on one-time budget solutions.
  • Failure to adopt plan to cover expenditures once federal fiscal stimulus monies are no longer available.

Instead state officials should make fundamental changes by "re-booting" state government as called for by the Governor in her state of the state address last January:

 “. . . 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 peo!
ple well in 1940 or 1960 or 1990 does not serve the people well in the 21st century. 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."

 

More bad news for parents and students

November 19, 2009 in Blog

Today's Seattle Times contains two sobering reports about education. 

 One article reports that Superintendent of Public Instruction Randy Dorn is taking steps to further loosen academic requirements.  He proposes to further delay the requirement that students pass the state math and science tests in order to earn a high school diploma.  He would delay the math requirement from 2013 to 2015 and the science requirement to 2017. Reducing standards is the logical response of a school system run by officials focused on embarrassing high school graduation rates: fully one-third of high schools students drop out.  Increasing the math and science knowledge of individual students must play second fiddle to increasing graduation rates. 

A second article reports that the Seattle School District has returned to a neighborhood assignment plan for schools.  Parent choice has now been eliminated, reversing the open enrollment policy instituted by Superintendent John Stanford in the late 1990's.  Until now, this open enrollment policy allowed thousands of parents to make the choice they felt was best for their student, with the result that many schools in the north end of the city became overenrolled and many in the south end became underenrolled. 

The proper response of the district to this evidence of broad disaffection with certain schools should have been to close these schools, or replace their underperforming staff.

Instead, underperforming schools will remain open and fully enrolled, and all will be neat and tidy from the point of view of administrators in the district.  But this bodes ill for students and families.  Parents will be unable to remove their students from underperforming neighborhood schools.  The district responds to these concerns by claiming that all schools in all neighborhoods will be excellent, some day in the future.  But how can excellence in all schools be achieved now, when a critical factor in driving improvements, the power of parent choice, has been eliminated?

What a sad state of affairs for parents and students in Washington state and in Seattle.

Governor to Commerce Director: "This is not acceptable"

November 18, 2009 in Blog

Attendees at this morning's GMAP session were witness to a visibly disappointed Governor expressing her displeasure with an agency's lack of performance. The focus of the meeting was the state's use of the federal stimulus funds. One of the activities highlighted was Commerce's weatherization program.

Commerce Director Rogers Weed opened his presentation by asking the Governor to lower the target for the number of housing units to be weatherized since it would be unlikely for Commerce to meet the current goal. Weed indicated the problem was caused by questions concerning prevailing wage requirements and how much workers should be paid for the weatherization projects.

The original goal for the 2nd quarter was to weatherize 935 units. Commerce's actual production was 107 units.

Responding to this the Governor said she was absolutely disappointed with how many fingers wer!
e being pointed and the bureaucracy getting clogged up. She also stressed that she didn't understand why the problem surrounding the prevailing wage confusion wasn't identified sooner to allow for corrective action. She concluded her criticism by saying "this is not acceptable" and reminded those who work for government that they are the guardian of taxpayer dollars.

Beyond the Commerce fireworks there was other news of note from today's GMAP meeting:

  • The Governor commented that the accountability states are being held to for the stimulus funds is "mind boggling" and only 1/10 of what the big banks were required to do under TARP.
  • The Governor mentioned a phone call she recently had with the Vice President about the cliff states will fall off if the federal funds for social services (Medicaid, etc) are not extended for use next year and that she is actively lobbying for more federal funds.
  • The Governor stressed the need for agencies to focus on whether results were actually being achieved for expenditures not simply whether the money can be accounted for.

Also discussed was an overview of the state's stimulus funds:

  • $2 billion for program grants - 30,000 jobs (24,000 of which are in education)
  • $2 billion for federal direct expenditures - 2,900 jobs
  • $1 billion for local governments and non-profits - 3,000 jobs
  • $1 billion for assistance to individuals (Medicaid, etc)

The state was not required to keep track of how many of those jobs are new. Last month The News Tribune questioned the 24,000 education jobs reported. From the article:

New numbers released by the federal government Friday estimate that the federal stimulus package has helped create or save 34,500 total jobs in Washington, making it the state with the third-largest reported number of stimulus jobs behind California and New York.

But there’s a caveat on those job creation numbers: 24,000 of them probably weren’t in danger in the first place.

State officials used a chunk of stimulus money to cover paychecks for 24,000 teachers who were already contracted to finish out the school year. That money came from a pot of stimulus funds given to the state to hel!
p offset budget cuts.

Without that funding, the money to pay the teachers would have come out of the state general fund, said Jill Satran, Gov. Chris Gregoire’s main adviser on stimulus projects.

That would have meant cuts elsewhere, Satran said, but the job losses that would have resulted from such cuts is difficult to quantify. Few, if any, of the 24,000 teacher jobs would have been among them, Satran said.

WSDOT to reduce speed limit on I-5

November 17, 2009 in Blog

I've noticed WSDOT crews installing metal sign columns along a busy stretch of I-5 between Boeing Field and I-90. They are about every 300 feet and appear on both sides of the freeway. I took some pictures on a recent trip. 

Photo Photo2 Photo3

According to the WSDOT, these columns will be used to install variable speed limit signs.

The signs will display speed limits from 40 to 60 mph, depending on traffic
levels. The result will be fewer traffic collisions and less
collision-related congestion.
WSDOT estimates the speed limits will become variable beginning Summer 2010. Active Traffic Management systems are a sure fire way  to increase vehicle throughput along a particular corridor (and they are relatively inexpensive). Reducing the speed limit may seem counter intuitive to some, but as former WSDOT Secretary Doug MacDonald demonstrates in this video, it makes sense: 

As we have noted many times before, there is no formal policy to reduce traffic congestion in Washington State. So its refreshing to see a project with a direct relationship between spending transportation taxes and maximizing vehicle throughput. Seattle and Sound Transit officials have taken the opposite position by implementing policies and programs that don't reduce congestion or deliberately make it worse.

Are the Uninsured Really Treated Differently After Major Trauma?

November 17, 2009 in Blog

The Archives of Surgery recently a published a peer reviewed paper concluding that people without health insurance were more likely to die after major trauma than people with health insurance. The study looked at trauma deaths as recorded in the national trauma registry from 2002 through 2006 and included a total of almost 700,000 patients.

Overall mortality in the insured group was 4.7% with a breakdown of 3.3% for commercial insurance, 2.9% for managed care, 3.7% for Medicaid and as expected in the higher age range, 6.7% for Medicare. The uninsured had a 5.7% overall mortality rate.

The study was very well controlled for matching age, race, severity of trauma, and type of trauma (blunt vs penetrating). The authors concluded that having health insurance determines the likelihood of survival after major trauma.

The one glaring difference between the insured and uninsured groups was the incidence of penetrating injuries. The commercially insured and managed care groups had a 6% and 9% rate respectively with seniors in Medicare at 4%. The uninsured had a 24% rate. Most penetrating injuries are gun shot wounds and it can be argued that the chance of surviving a gun shot injury is much less than surviving blunt trauma which is usually in the form of an auto accident or a fall.

The implication of the paper is that providers treat patients in an emergency setting differently based on their insurance status. This is disingenuous and is absolutely insulting to the medical profession.

Fixing school financing to make the most of the ample funding provided

November 17, 2009 in Blog

The Working Group implementing school finance reform under last session's reform bill, HB 2261, faces a serious new challenge. Last week, in the Federal Way School District case, the Supreme Court found that the legislature's school funding allocations do not violate the constitutional clauses requiring ample provision and a general and uniform system of schools.  Legislators can no longer rely on the judicial system to fix the public school finance in Washington State. And the projected budget shortfall of over $2 billion increases the pressure for finding better solutions. 

 

The current system of school finance (and the prototype school system embraced by HB 2261) allows legislatures and school districts to decide how to staff schools, which is so inefficient that less than 59 cents of every dollar actually reaches the classroom.  

 

A better solution for school finance reform is available.  This solution would allow schools to make better use of and provide greater transparency and clarity over the $9 billion Washington state's taxpayers currently provide to educate one million students. 

 

This solution is described in a new report from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the American Enterprise Institute, Leaders and Laggards: A State-by-State Report Card on Educational Improvement.  This report concluded: "The results were deeply troubling. From weak data capacity to anachronistic finance systems, schools just do not have the ability to respond to 21st century educational challenges." Among the report's key recommendations is a system of student-centered funding to minimize complexity, improve funding transparency, and help improve student achievement. Specifically, the report states:

 

   "In light of these challenges, states could benefit from a system of student-based funding under which a student's school would receive a certain amount of dollars based on the student's particular needs, and could then spend those funds flexibly. This policy has a number of other names, including results-based budgeting and weighted student funding. ...Such a system would give local educators far greater autonomy and allow them to allocate resources in ways that would best serve students. ...when dollars follow a child directly to the classroom, the people closest to the student—school leaders and community members—are empowered to make decisions that affect that child, as opposed to central district offices that have little to no interaction with pupils. This system would, of course, also increase clarity and transparency!
, helping to create a funding model in which parents and policymakers can easily judge how effectively educators use resources."

See pp. 25-26 of this report for full discussion of this reform and other much-needed reforms.

Governor willing to wait on budget fix

November 17, 2009 in Blog

Governor Gregoire will not call a special session of the Legislature despite a budget deficit likely to exceed $2 billion after Thursday's state revenue forecast. Sen. Joe Zarelli (R-18), ranking member on the Senate Ways and Means Committee, has been calling for a special session for months. Zarelli issued this statement in a press release last week:

“The Legislature doesn’t have to sit back and wait for the governor to bring out her budget proposal next month. We can call ourselves into special session in early December, when we’re already scheduled to be at the Capitol. The budget writers already know where they can reduce spending; the sooner we act, the more can be saved to preserve important programs which otherwise would be subject to slashing later.
 
The alternative to spending reductions is tax hikes. The majority party won’t come out and say it is planning to fill the budget gap t!
hrough higher taxes, but if the taxpayers don’t see quick action in Olympia to lower spending, they will see something else: the writing on the wall that tax increases are coming in 2010, even though people can’t afford higher taxes.”

According to The Olympian, the Governor has no plans to call a special session and instead will wait to take action next year:

Gov. Chris Gregoire rejected new Republican calls for a special legislative session in early December to deal with the growing budget shortfall, despite her prediction it might hit $2.5 billion after Thursday's revenue forecast . . .

“This is not something you do overnight. It’s something you do thoughtfully,” she said, rejecting Republican Sen. Joe Zarelli’s renewed calls for a special session in early December when lawmakers !
are in town. Gregoire contended special sessions would cost mo!
ney and that budget-writers in the Legislature that she’s talked to “haven’t gone in-depth” on the budget and don’t want to do anything piecemeal.

State law prohibits a cash deficit from occurring by requiring the Governor to take action. Here is what RCW 43.88.110(7) says:

If at any time during the fiscal period the governor projects a cash deficit in a particular fund or account as defined by RCW 43.88.050, the governor shall make across-the-board reductions in allotments for that particular fund or account so as to prevent a cash deficit, unless the legislature has directed the liquidation of the cash deficit over one or more fiscal periods . . .

Since the Governor has not ordered across-the-board reductions as required by law and will not call a special session to address the $2 billion plus de!
ficit, she should veto any bills passed by the Legislature until the budget deficit is resolved.

Delay only exacerbates the budget problem and makes the needed corrections more difficult. If there isn't the will to fix the problem now the Governor and lawmakers must commit to fix the problem at the beginning of the session versus waiting until the waning days.

Tax increases, however, should be removed from the table as an option to help remove any distractions from making the necessary budget reductions.

As noted by these economists, the worst time to raise taxes is during a recession or fledgling recovery.

It appears that at least one Democrat member of the House Ways and Means Committee recognizes this. From The Everett Herald:

style="margin-left: 40px;">Rep. Mark Ericks, D-Bothell, who is vice chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, said the Legislature tried to “spread the pain” last year by paring a little from everywhere. Now they must look at mothballing entire programs.

“From my perspective, that is what we have to do,” he said. “That won’t make some people happy but that is what is ahead for us.”

No one’s talked to Ericks about hiking taxes. Nor does he think it’s a panacea.

“Where’s that tax that people would raise that would temporarily increase our revenue to get us over the hump? I don’t see it,” he said. “The whole issue about the tax is a red herring.”

Obama to Ron Sims: Everything is in your jurisdiction

November 16, 2009 in Blog

On Sunday, the Washington Post reported on the federal government possibly taking over yet another industry, local rail systems.

Under the proposal, the U.S. Department of Transportation would do for
transit what it does for airlines and Amtrak: set and enforce federal
regulations to ensure that millions of passengers get to their
destinations safely.

The proposal to impose federal oversight over local rail agencies is another example of a growing trend of the Obama administration to centralize power in Washington D.C. This deliberate concentration of power has been seen most dramatically in the auto, health care and financial industries. And with the upcoming Surface Transportation Reauthorization Act, Dr. Ron Utt from the Heritage Foundation details how the federal government will also centralize even greater authority over transportation policies.

In October, Ron Sims, Deputy Secretary of Department of Housing and Urban Development spoke at Cascadia's Beyond Oil Conference at Microsoft and gave us a glimpse of his role in this massive centralization!
of power. He began his remarks with this introduction:

“I have an interesting Job. I have both the responsibilities for day to day operations of the Department of Housing and Urban Development and then two major policy initiatives. I’m called the new breed of deputy secretaries. And one of those is “sustainability” and “livability.” It’s really interesting when you talk about how to transform an agency because we were told by the President that we could not exist in silos anymore. That it would be unacceptable for us to go to any meeting and say the problem we face in any major urban area or even the rural areas across the country was not our jurisdictional issue. That would not be a good meeting. There would not be a positive result. The President at that moment would thank you for your service and replace you.” (here is the video)

Centralization of power at the federal level means local officials have less control over policy decisions. It also means the federal government has an ever increasing role in our lives. And I think we all get a little anxious when federal officials claim that every issue is now within their jurisdiction.

Washington State's eligibility for federal Race to the Top education grants

November 13, 2009 in Blog

  This week the federal government released its rules and scoring system for states competing for a portion of federal Race to the Top funds. Today's Seattle Times front page article discusses Washington's  education policies which are likely to prevent Washington from winning these funds.  These include a ban  charter schools and a ban on the state takeover of persistently failing schools.

The Seattle Times article also reveals that, in order to qualify for these funds, the state will be attempting to describe its National Board Certification for teachers as a performance pay system.  This program does not involve evaluating the individual performance of teachers for their effectiveness in the classroom.  Rather, National Board Certification gives bonuses to teachers willing to take another set of classes and/or willing to work in inner-city classrooms. 

Here is the Executive Summary of the regulations, which explains the Department of Education's point system for scoring applications from the states. Here is that point system:Racetoppointssystem 
  

Small businesses rank top policy priorities

November 13, 2009 in Blog

Small business owners, legislators, and policymakers from all over Washington gathered in SeaTac this past Tuesday to discuss the state's business climate at WPC's 2009 Statewide Small Business Conference. During several interactive issue breakout sessions, business owners suggested and discussed solutions to improve the climate for small businesses in Washington. This was the fourth statewide small business conference hosted by WPC since 2003.

Oregon's Green Job Experience: Much Green, Few Jobs

November 12, 2009 in Blog

With jobs high on the agenda for the public, environmental activists have made the creation of "green jobs" a central talking point in their campaign to justify government expenditures and environmental regulation. Politicians have jumped on this message as well. For instance, WPC was attacked by Dow Constantine in the recent King County Executive race because, he claimed, we "oppose green jobs."

Of course what we oppose are policies that kill two jobs for every one created in a politically favored industry. That is the path to higher unemployment and reduced prosperity. By way of contrast we favor innovation tax cuts that strengthen job growth, green or otherwise, while promoting energy efficient technologies.

Now, there is more evidence from the other side of the Columbia that the strategy favored by environmental activists and "green" politicians is costly and ineffective.

Writing about Oregon's effort to create green jobs, the Longview Daily News today highlights the costs of their government subsidies:

No state has been a more vigorous advocate of green economy — or, as it turns out, invested more in attracting renewable energy companies — than Oregon. ... [The Oregonian] reported that the state’s Business Energy Tax Credit (BETC) cost taxpayers $68 million in 2007-09 — more than 40 times what legislators had been told it would cost. And that’s only for starters. The cost of BETC subsidies for green projects is estimated to climb to $167 in 2009-11, and to $243 million in 2011-13.

We've seen this before with Cash for Clunkers and other programs. Programs that offer free government money end up finding many takers. The problem is that the results are not in line with the costs. The Oregonian highlighted some costly failures:

Among them was the Clatskanie ethanol plant which eventually went bankrupt and ceased operations. It received $12 million in tax subsidies and a $20 million energy loan from the state. Another wasteful example cited in the report was a wind energy project that was handed tax credits totaling $40 million. [The Oregonian] found that this project will generate less electricity than projects that received credits totaling around $4 million.

The question is, have these projects generated jobs? Oregon's unemployment rate is currently 11.5 percent. More than 1.3 percent higher than the national average and 2.2 percent higher than Washington's rate.

Given the poor results from these subsidies, imagine what could be done with that funding that would truly make a difference.

The results are worthy of Linda Richman: "green" jobs are neither green, nor jobs...discuss.

Seattle opposes PSRC's preferred Transportation 2040 alternative

November 12, 2009 in Blog

During the PSRC's Transportation Policy Board (TPB) meeting this morning, the city of Seattle expressed opposition to the Transportation 2040 plan and asked for an extra year to work out their issues. The prepared statement was read by a city representative and signed by Mayor Greg Nickels and all nine councilmembers.

Despite Seattle's protest, the TPB voted to move the preferred alternative forward and directed staff to prepare an EIS.

Another interesting factoid (and probably Seattle's reason for opposition) is the preferred Transportation 2040 alternative does not achieve the state's targets for reducing emissions or reducing how much people drive, even with PSRC's assumption of more than 160 miles of light rail.

This finding is similar to the conclusions of a new TRB study called Driving and the Built Environment, The Effect of Compact Development on Motor!