Washington Policy Blog

Smart growth and sustainability...not so much.

May 1, 2009 in Blog

The city of Petaluma, California is largely recognized as the first US city to impose artificial limits on growth, which eventually led to today's smart growth movement. In 1972, the city capped building permits at 500 per year. Fast forward to 2009, the city recently dissolved its planning department because there was no longer enough activity to pay for it.

Planners put themselves out of business
Petaluma Scraps Planning Department

Greens v. Science: Nicholas Stern Edition

April 29, 2009 in Blog

Tonight, the Pacific Science Center will welcome Nicholas Stern, whose alarmist economic analysis is embraced by those advocating for radical and costly measures to address climate change. His work, however, is outside of both the scientific and economic consensus.

First, climate alarmists often point to the scientific consensus forged by the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Stern, however, often uses science that lies outside of the IPCC's projections. For instance, he estimates the potential of a 7 meter (24 foot) sea level rise due to the melting of the Greenland ice sheet beginning at just 2 degrees C increase. Elsewhere, Stern highlights the danger of a 1 meter (39 inches) sea level rise. The median estimate for sea level rise from the IPCC, on the other hand, is about 350 mm (14 inches).

He also shades his estimates toward the catastrophic, even when admitting that his estimates are based on little evidence. For example, he says that at 2 degrees C of increase there is risk of "15 – 40% of species facing extinction (according to one estimate)." One estimate. Supporters cannot simultaneously rely on the scientific "consensus" and then violate it when convenient.

Second, his economics also lie far afield of the consensus. Stern has been widely criticized for using extremely low discount rates to estimate future costs. A discount rate is an estimate of the time value of money. Discount rates tell us whether it is better to spend or save today. An extremely low discount rate means that avoiding small future impacts is worth huge investments today. Stern's discount rates are far below what virtually every other economist would consider reasonable and this has some very strange results.

Yale professor William Nordhaus, who has studied the potential economic impacts of climate change for decades, explains how silly Stern's estimates are. In his excellent book A Question of Balance, Nordhaus writes,

The Stern Review would justify reducing per capita consumption for one year today from $6,600 to $2,900 in order to prevent a reduction of consumption from $87,000 to $86,900 starting two centuries hence and continuing at that rate forever after. This bizarre result arises because the value of the future consumption stream is so high with near-zero time discounting that we should sacrifice a large fraction of today’s income in order to increase a far-future income stream by a very tiny fraction.

That's one reason why the vast majority of economists do not take Stern's projections seriously. By way of contrast, the Copenhagen Consensus, which brought together many economists, including a number of Nobel Prize winners, ranked climate change dead last in its priority list of the top challenges facing humanity.

Those who are concerned about climate change need to decide: do they support the scientific and economic "consensus," or do they support Nicholas Stern? So far, they are choosing Stern.

WashingtonVotes.org 2009 Missed Votes Report

April 29, 2009 in Blog

WashingtonVotes.org has released its annual Missed Votes Report, detailing missed roll call votes on bills and amendments for every legislator during the 2009 Legislative Session.

WashingtonVotes.org is the state's premier legislative information website that provides concise, plain-English, objective descriptions of every bill, amendment and vote of the Washington legislature.

2009 Session Quick Facts:
- Number of Roll Call votes in the House: 887
- Number of Bills Introduced in the Legislature: 2,584
- Number of Roll Call votes in the Senate: 847
- Number of Bills Passed by the Legislature: 599
- Number of legislators who didn't miss any of these votes: 47
- Number of legislators who missed more than 100 votes: 6

WashingtonVotes.org Director Brandon Houskeeper says the missed votes tool enables Washingtonians to track the actions of their elected officials in Olympia. "Obtaining this information from the state would require a person to read and record information from thousands of pages of legislative documents," he said, "but the WashigtonVotes.org Missed Votes Report puts that same information in front of Washingtonians with just one or two clicks."

There are many legitimate reasons why legislators miss votes during a session. "Legislators are often meeting with constituents, other lawmakers or dealing with unexpected emergencies, that is the value of the Missed Votes Report."  Houskeeper noted, "Washingtonians can use WashingtonVotes.org as an informational resource and tool."

WashingtonVotes.org contacted the legislators from each chamber who missed the most votes and gave them an opportunity to explain why they missed the votes.  Click here to view or download the 2009 Missed Votes Report and legislator responses. (pdf)

Will veto restore performance audit funding?

April 29, 2009 in Blog

Despite the State Auditor’s willingness to share in the budget pain, lawmakers went a step further and raided $29 million from the dedicated performance audit account (a 74% reduction in available funds). This is the account voters created in 2005 when 57% approved independent performance audit authority for the State Auditor. This will leave approximately $10 million in the performance audit account. By contrast, the State Auditor spent $16 million from this account during the current biennium.

The raiding of the performance audit program brought the following rebuke from the State Auditor who sent this letter on April 24 to House Speaker Frank Chopp (in-part):

“The section that sweeps away most of our performance audit funding is ridiculous and offensive both to us and to citizens. The cuts are unacceptab!
le and will severely undercut our ability to do independent performance audits . . . I am deeply disappointed in the way the budget process has worked this year. The lack of clear, on-going communication with your members regarding our budget has led to confusion and, now, this unacceptable budget proposal.”

This wasn’t the first time the State Auditor expressed outrage at the legislative attacks on performance audit funding.

On March 31, the Auditor testified before the Senate Ways and Means Committee saying (in-part):

“It is unacceptable to me. It is unacceptable to citizens who in such a time as this look to us more than ever to ensure that government is accountable and transparent. They recognize this Office is uniquely positioned to be part of the refor!
m the governance change that everybody talks about and wants.&!

What particularly disappoints me is that the effects of this budget come at a time when our Office is looked upon to be part of the solution. Every discussion we’ve had with legislative leadership and the Governor centered on how we can help bring about meaningful, cost-saving government reform.

We’ve already got several performance audits underway with the intent to identify immediate cost savings as well as long-term efficiencies.

We also have launched a statewide performance review, which we were called upon to do by the Governor. It will focus exclusively on state government, its governance structure and back-office functions such as information technology and leasing office space. Many in the Legislature recognize its potential.

Just like successful performance reviews in other states and nationally, we’re going into it with the full intention of finding and recommending significant !
spending reductions and proposed ways to reshape and recreate what state government does and how state government does it.”

Ultimately the State Auditor’s pleas fell on deaf legislative ears. But there is still one more chance for performance audits and their potential to help the state down the path of government reform -- the Governor’s veto pen should she choose to wield it to restore the performance audit funding.

Why lay off classroom teachers?

April 29, 2009 in Blog

The Seattle Times reports today that between 3000-6000 new teachers may lose their jobs due to a $800 million reduction to planned public school spending increases.  Why would school districts lay off classroom teachers?  

Public schools in Washington State employ 104,174 people.  Only 48,731 are elementary or secondary classroom teachers, and another 5183 are "other classroom teachers," so about half of public school employees work outside the classroom.  Shouldn't administrators be looking outside the classroom to reduce costs?

State law lets public schools hire any qualified teacher, but they don't

April 28, 2009 in Blog

Last week, Peter Callahan of the Tacoma News Tribune pointed out to me---thanks Peter--that the provision in the new basic education bill, HB 2261, allowing public school administrators to hire teachers of "unusual competence" without certification already exists in law:  RCW 28A.150. 260.  

It's great this provision exists on paper, but it doesn't seem to have much effect in the real world.  I wonder why.  I'll have to research this a little more. 

Forcing you to work and live where the government wants

April 28, 2009 in Blog

Here is an excellent study from Dr. Ron Utt, a senior fellow at Heritage Foundation, called President Obama's New Plan to Decide Where Americans Live and How They Travel. You might remember that Dr. Utt was our featured speaker at last years transportation event, where he spoke about performance-based transportation policy and traffic congestion relief.

President Barack Obama's early
comments on his opposition to suburban sprawl and his intention to
alter the way Americans live and travel took a step closer to reality
when he created an interdepartmental initiative on housing and
transportation costs. A March press release issued by the U.S. Department of Transportation
(DOT) and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD)
announced a new interagency partnership to create "affordable,
sustainable communities." Included among its many goals are projects to:

  • Develop
    a new cost index that combines housing and transportation costs into a
    single measure to better illuminate the true costs by "redefining
    affordability and making it transparent,"
  • Encourage "transportation choice," and
  • Require
    even more planning by the many federally funded regional planning
    entities that are already attempting to guide Americans toward a
    suppos­edly better life.

Rich in the sort of progressive
euphemisms used to mask real intentions, the press release heralds a
process that could likely lead to an unprecedented federal effort to
force Americans into an antiquated lifestyle that was common to the
early years of the previous century. More specifically, these
initiatives reflect an escalation in what is shaping up as Presi­dent
Obama's apparent intent to re-energize and lead the Left's longstanding
war against America's suburbs.

Full study: President Obama's New Plan to Decide Where Americans Live and How They Travel
To learn more about the current trends in transportation policy and congestion relief, visit congestionrelief.org.

Governor's email to state employees on budget

April 28, 2009 in Blog

Here is the full email the Governor sent state employees yesterday (emphasis added):

Dear Fellow State Employee:

As you know, we just finished perhaps the toughest legislative session since the Great Depression.  There may be a special session to complete a handful of items, but the truly heavy lifting is done including passage of the operating budget.

I know the last months have been hard for you and your families too.  There is uncertainty about the future of programs to which you have dedicated your working life, as well as uncertainty about your own future.

Although overall budget uncertainty has ended, there is still a lot of hard work ahead as our agencies absorb and manage their way through budget cuts to balance a $9 billion shortfall.  It is up to us to make this budget work as best we can!

All of us, as a team, must carry out the work ahead with g!
reat sensitivity and care.  I know this is not just a budget document.  It’s about all of you, the families who depend on you, and the citizens we all came to serve.

In the weeks, months and years ahead, all Washingtonians will feel the impacts of the hard decisions the Legislature made – and we are now required to make along with nearly every other state – after the mortgage and financial markets set off the Great Recession we find ourselves in.

You are the men and women who will connect with Washingtonians at very important and personal levels – explaining, helping us set priorities, and serving wisely and compassionately.

This will be hard work, and your skills will be sorely tested.  For example, programs and services may need to be adjusted to accommodate significant reductions in “administrative” spending of about $255 million, which means fewer people to deliver services. 

Meanwhile, the!
budget calls for difficult personal adjustments.  For i!
nstance, we may be asking employees to take unpaid furloughs to save jobs and money.  The funding for our health-care benefits is not sufficient to cover health-care inflation, so we may pay higher co-pays.

Amid these difficult changes, I ask that we continue – and strengthen – the partnership we forged last year when you helped me implement vital budget reductions to better position ourselves for the challenges to come.  Imagine the budget we would have if we had failed to take early action to save money.

I continue to need your skill and creativity to reform and improve how we serve our citizens.  Reform of state government is not only the right thing to do – it’s now absolutely necessary.  We are going to have to reinvent what we do and how we do it, and you have the ideas that can work.

I want and need your ideas. You are the people on the ground, and I can’t do this without you.  !
Please respond to this e-mail, as you did last summer and fall, to share your input.

I’ll close with optimism.

I sense a change in this country that bodes well for us and for society as a whole.  After years of pursuing other, more financially “lucrative” careers, more college graduates are showing renewed interest in public service.  There is a new generation that wants to serve as much as we do.  There is a new respect building for the work we do – which is to serve the greater good.  What we do does matter.  What we do builds the future.

So let’s renew the commitments that brought us to state service in the first place – to serve for the good of our communities.  I’m counting on you, and so are the people of this great state.

Thank you, Chris

Meanwhile the Washington Federation of State Employees put out this summary for its members an!
d noted: ". . . your ongoing step increases remain. The Senate on Saturday night defeated an amendment proposed by Sen. Joseph Zarelli that would have blocked step increases. So if you're eligible for step increases, you will continue to get them."

Step increases are pay raises for individuals that move up the state salary grid; these are different than across the board pay raises.

Additional Information
Whatever happened to government reform?

$270 million in tax and fee increases estimated for 2009-11

April 24, 2009 in Blog

The Office of Financial Management just issued the I-960 tax and fee impact statement for the version of the budget that passed the Senate Ways and Means Committee.

2009-11 impact: Minimum of $270 million in tax and fee increases.

Not included are some higher education fees: "All other fees imposed by institutions of higher education are as of now indeterminate. SSB 5600 gives authority to institutions of higher education to set other fees, but any fee increases have yet to be determined and approved by governing boards of public baccalaureate institutions."

Details here.

HB 2261 education reform would let public schools hire qualified teachers without restriction, just like private schools do

April 24, 2009 in Blog

    There are many problems with the new education reform bill (more on that later), but there is one little-noticed provision that can do tremendous good for improving the education of our children.  Section 102 would allow school districts to hire qualified teachers who don't happen to have an approved state certificate, just like private schools do.  Eighty percent of the teachers at the prestigious, private Lakeside School in Seattle do not have a state-approved certificate.  The new hiring authority will go a long way toward solving the math and science teacher shortage ; for example, many of the highly trained people being laid off at Microsoft can now accept teaching positions in public schools. 

A Disjointed Defense of Green Buildings and Bonds

April 24, 2009 in Blog

The normally thoughtful Sightline Institute has a silly response to my recent piece applying the lessons of green buildings to the legislative proposal for a $3 billion tax and spending package to upgrade state buildings with "green" elements. The proposal claims that a portion of the cost of the package would be paid by energy savings.

Their first critique is that our report is off base because it doesn't address the proposal directly. This is true. The proposal was unveiled on a Monday and the first hearing was Tuesday at 8 am. So, our piece is an attempt to draw lessons from Washington's experience with spending on "green" buildings. History never repeats itself exactly, but that doesn't mean we ignore it. Ironically, in one of the author's previous posts about the "green" bonds legislation, he cites data from "green" buildings studies to support the legislation. So he argues that our methodology isn't applicable after he previously used the exact same comparison to support the legislation.

Incidentally, we did, subsequently, write a short piece directly addressing the bill itself. You can read it on our blog asking "Are Green Bonds Worth It?"

They go on to say that "There is nothing in the legislation that mandates particular kinds of retrofits or LEED certification." This isn't quite right. There is a great deal of talk about "green jobs" and "green" elements. In fact, they call the spending proposal "green" bonds. To pretend that certain types of projects won't be favored ignores all the rhetoric used to justify it. Sightline's own support of the legislation is based on that very expectation.

The next critique shows how fast-and-loose some play with facts when they want something. Advocates of green buildings produced a report saying that those buildings perform better than the "standard stock" of American buildings. Our study notes that the "standard stock" of buildings averages 40-years old. Noting that a new "green" building is more efficient than a 40-year old building is a pretty attenuated claim. But green building advocates misuse the study, implying that it shows new "green" buildings are better than simply new buildings. It shows no such thing.

Sightline, however, says I make their point since the green bonds bill would update those buildings. They say "But that’s precisely the point: many of the school buildings eligible for retrofits really are 40 years old, or are built to minimum standards, or both." Really? Show me the data. Does the author know that are are they simply saying it because they want to believe it?

That leads to the more important point. The author notes the bill "doesn’t force districts to make improvements if they don’t pencil out." No, it doesn't force but it does actively encourage districts to make improvements that don't pencil out. Since schools pay none or only a small part of the cost, virtually any energy saving pencils out. Spending $10 to save $1 makes sense as long as someone else is spending the $10. That's what this does. The sponsor himself was very clear in his testimony that the purpose of this spending is to create jobs and energy saved is a positive side effect. The primary goal, however, is to spend the money.

The next section is the most muddled. The author uses the metaphor of a pitcher throwing strikes, so it seems like he added this last part because he needed a third. I quote a piece by the Superintendent of Public Instruction's office (SPI) from last December that savings are uncertain. My comments are a response to some who claim that that report shows a 24 percent energy savings. But the report says those savings are "projected," not actual. Our research shows those projections to be inaccurate.

Sightline quotes the SPI report saying that schools weren't asked to report those savings, but that some schools had reported "immediate and anticipated future cost savings." He goes on to say:

In other words, WPC uses the SPI report to criticize Dunshee’s legislation but ignores the fact that the districts weren’t asked to report about their energy savings. What’s more, some of the districts chose to report their energy savings anyway found just what you might expect: energy efficiency investments pay for themselves over time.

It is too early to tell, on the whole, whether buildings constructed following the WSSP protocol will produce enough savings to offset the up front investment. But many schools are reporting savings -- and the lessons we learn from the program’s ongoing data collection should inform investment decisions on retrofits.

In the first sentence he says savings are uncertain because they didn't offer data. The second sentence says that some schools reported savings, although he portrays them as real when they are actually only projected. The third sentence is back to uncertain. The fourth sentence is back to saying "many" schools are reporting savings. So, the data are uncertain, except where they point to his desired conclusion. That's called cherry-picking the data and it is evidence of a lack of rigor.

Ironically, he then accuses us of cherry picking. He argues:

The only other empirical evidence WPC offers to criticize the WSSP is that they claim to have found at least one non-green building that outperformed a green building in the same district. However, they don’t share the age, location, square footage or energy use at the schools being compared, so we can’t know if WPC’s comparison is fair or not.

This critique indicates that it is unlikely that the author read our piece very carefully. Not only do I give more than one example, I name some of the schools we looked at. I wrote, in the eighth paragraph of my piece, that:

In Tacoma, where supporters touted the energy savings of Giaudrone Middle School, the building has consistently used about 30 percent more energy per square foot than another Tacoma middle school built the same year but without mandated green standards. In Spokane, none of the three “green” elementary schools are as energy efficient as Browne Elementary, built in 2002, prior to passage of the “High Performance Buildings” law.

Also, he didn't look at our web page to see if I'd mentioned other schools. I should have footnoted our work, but he can look at Should the State Follow "LEED" or Get Out of the Way?, WPC's comments on Residential/Commercial/Industrial option 3 (RCI-3), Suspending Failed “Green” Building Rules Can Save Schools Millions, "Green" Building Standards Not Improving Student Learning But Are Reducing Funding for Necessary Education Programs, font> among others. We've looked at all of the districts included in the State's green building pilot project and many others highlighted by the environmental community. Some are better than others, but none of the "green" schools live up to their promises, a fact now acknowledged, begrudgingly, by both the SPI and the Department of Ecology.

As for the "green" bonds proposal itself, our research is demonstrating that the savings claimed by advocates are amorphous. The data only include projected savings and actual savings are rarely audited. Further, the total amount spent on the types of projects highlighted by advocates has been about $160 million over ten years. This proposal increases that to $200 million, of the total $3 billion spent, over two years. Given the lack of clear data, hoping that this dramatic increase in the program will produce the projected savings seems hopeful in the extreme.

One thing we can agree on is Sightline's call for a cost-benefit analysis of energy saving projects. Now if we could just get the legislature to consider that approach, we'd be getting somewhere.

UPDATED: Lawmakers to State Auditor: You don't really need performance audit funding, do you?

April 24, 2009 in Blog

Holy smoke!

I'm reading through the just released state budget compromise and one clear loser is the State Auditor. It appears lawmakers didn't take too kindly to his complaint about their raids on the dedicated performance audit funding authorized by voters.

Consider Section 805: It raids $29 million of the performance audit funds. The original House budget took $12 million; The original Senate budget $15 million. Looks like the compromise response to the Auditor's complaints was to combine the money raided.

Unfortunately for the State Auditor the hits in this budget just keep coming.

  • Section 124 (3) appears to set up a bounty for audit savings. I.E. - Auditor can have some of the money back for any savings implemented as a result of performance audits: "It is the intent of the legislature to reduce the 2009-11 legislative transfers from the performance audits of government accounts to recognize actual reductions achieved in expenditures from the state treasury as a result of these performance audits."
  • Section 927 (2) limits number of audits the State Auditor can do of local governments: ". . . the state auditor shall conduct audits no more often than once every two years of local governments with annual general fund revenues of ten million dollars or less and no findings of impropriety for the three-year period immediately preceding the audit period."
  • Section 928 reduces the amount the State Auditor can charge local governments for their audits: ". . . the state auditor shall reduce the municipal revolving account charges for financial audits performed on local governments by five percent."

I wonder if the State Auditor is now considering changing the "incomplete grade" he gave lawmakers in this TVW interview yesterday to "failing."

UPDATED: The State Auditor just sent over this letter to House Speaker Chopp expressing his disappointment with the proposed budget.

Also, according to legislative sources the raids on the I-900 funds aren't doubled by the proposed budget - the $29 million taken from the performance audit account is the same as in earlier budget versions but is occurring in a different way.

Either way the State Auditor is very unhappy with the budget proposal as evidenced by his letter.

Viaduct: I have altered the deal. Pray I don't alter it any further!

April 24, 2009 in Blog

Did you know the deep bore tunnel reduces capacity from the current six lane configuration to just four lanes? This is not a "replacement" of the viaduct, but rather a reduction in service.

And in classic government fashion, taxpayers will have to pay more for it. Just like Vader's deal to Lando Calrissian, the deal given to taxpayers just keeps getting worse.

Tolling the Viaduct

April 24, 2009 in Blog

The legislature's vote to partially replace the Viaduct with a deep bore tunnel allocates $2.4 billion in state money, with a provision that allows for an additional $400 million collected from tolling.

The bill includes this language:

The state route number 99 Alaskan Way viaduct replacement
project finance plan must include state funding not to exceed two
billion four hundred million dollars and must also include at least
four hundred million dollars in toll revenue. These funds must be used
solely to build a replacement tunnel, as described in subsection (1) of
this section, and to remove the existing state route number 99 Alaskan
Way viaduct.

This is significant for two reasons. First, tolling would end once the debt inte!
rest on the additional $400 million is paid off. And second, the tolling revenue can only be used for construction (and demolition) purposes, not transit.

Both of these stipulations are consistent with WPC's tolling policy and consistent with how the state has used tolling in the past. With the exception of the HOT lane pilot project on HWY 167, policymakers still seem hesitant to manage demand through roadway pricing. And state policymakers also seem to resist the idea of using toll revenue for transit purposes.

State Auditor on "Reinventing Government"

April 23, 2009 in Blog

State Auditor Brian Sonntag was a guest today on Inside Olympia. The interview focused on the theme of reinventing government. Among the topics discussed:

  • Legislative action or inaction on reforms
  • Auditor's budget
  • Statewide performance review
  • Why the auditor doesn't issue press releases
  • I-900 and Tim Eyman
  • Legislative detractors of audits
  • Sonntag's participation at the anti-tax rally on April 15

Here is the video:

Additional Inform!
Whatever happened to government reform?
State Auditor fights performance audit cuts