Open Government

WPC's Center for Government Reform's mission is to partner with stakeholders and citizens to work toward a government focused on its core functions while improving its transparency, accountability, performance, and effectiveness for taxpayers.

Open Government Blog

A second stimulus? Consider the ramifications first.

July 22, 2009 in Blog

Some policymakers in D.C. and syndicated columnists/economists have already begun talking about the need for a second stimulus package to bolster the $787 billion passed by Congress in February.

But before they move to quickly to spend even more taxpayer dollars on various government projects, a little reading should be in order; namely, this report from Wells Fargo.

In a "Decision-Makers' Guide to Stimulus Part Deux," the authors of the paper first take Vice President Biden to task for saying, "the truth is, we and everyone else misread the economy." The authors point out that, "Everyone did not misread the ec!
onomy. Contrary to political rhetoric, economic analysis outside the beltway clearly anticipated a nine percent plus unemployment rate even with the stimulus package."

One of the major concerns over the last several months as government spending ramps up, is inflation. Again, the authors of the paper address this:

"Unfortunately, a second stimulus could add too much to the growth momentum to be consistent with stability in the long-run inflation interest rates and currency expectations. Inflation/debt concerns, which are already rising, would accelerate quickly and thereby prompt negative interest rate/dollar reactions that would create a boom/bust cycle..."

The stimulus/bailout mentality goes back to the reality that politicians don't always make the most sound economic decisions because they are influenced by the immediate short-term political gains and do not take into account, or minimize, the long-term costs!
. But this type of thinking has immediate economic ramificatio!

Stimulus funds GMAP

July 22, 2009 in Blog

Today's GMAP (Government Management Accountability and Performance) public meeting was on the state's stimulus efforts. Lots of interesting tidbits were reported including:

  • $4 billion has been allocated to the state - $827 million spent so far.
  • The Governor believes the states are being used as pawns in a political fight in D.C. on whether the stimulus package is working; she complained that some Senators were questioning the value of the stimulus package prior to her testimony yesterday in Congress on green jobs.
  • The Governor reported that her colleagues expressed concern at the national governors meeting about what type of information is to be reported to the feds and the time line for those reports.
  • The bulk of the state’s stimulus jobs are at Hanford. The Governor is concerned that some of those jobs aren’t being filled by Washingtonians; instead the contractors are hiring out of state workers.
  • The Department of Transportation expects to create or retain 5,000 jobs as a result of stimulus funds.
  • The State has obligated the 4th highest amount of transit funding in the country.
  • The transportation construction market may have hit its saturation point as recent bids are coming in at or above engineer estimates in contrast to previous bids coming in below.
  • There is a high correlation with “legislative earmarks” and projects not coming in on time or on budget due to the circumvention of the normal vetting process and review. 

Here are additional details (click on the links):

Democrats’ Proposed Health Plan Leaves 17 Million Uninsured

July 15, 2009 in Blog

The new health care reform plan unveiled today by Democrats in Congress is not universal care.  The Democrat-proposed plan provides for 17 million people to go without health care coverage.  The plan carries other risks, such as:

  • It raises taxes during a recession.  Higher taxes, even on the so-called rich, means there would be less money available for investment and job creation, delaying the recovery and increasing hardship for people who are out of work.  Business owners would slow or stop hiring, as they wait to see what their new payroll tax will be, and whether they will be forced to pay the proposed 8% “pay-or-pay” penalty each year.
  • The government option would crowd out private coverage.  Many workers would be forced onto the government plan against their will, as employers drop their current coverage in an effort to shift health costs to taxpayers.  Yet the President’s family and those of Members of Congress would not be forced onto the government option plan; as dependents of federal employees they would continue to receive first-class coverage.
  • Eight million people with Health Savings Accounts (100,000 in Washington) might lose their coverage if it doesn’t meet the federal definition of mandated insurance.  Innovative patient-centered medical practices in Washington, such as Dr. Erika Bliss’ Qliance clinic in Seattle, would be forced to close.

Here's a good illustration of how the proposed health care plan would work was released by the Joint Economic Committee.

House-Democrats-Health-Plan

Public versus private health care costs

July 9, 2009 in Blog

Depending on your perspective, the decision yesterday by the Public Employees Benefits Board (PEBB) to raise premiums, deductibles, and co-pays for public employees is either a "travesty" or common sense reality.

In a 4-3 vote, the PEBB members decided:

"Due to the state’s budget shortfall, the HCA required that the medical plans meet a budget target that would keep the average employee contribution at around 12%. To do this, the plans increased the costs of certain benefits, deductibles, and out-of-pocket maximums. The employer will continue to pay 88% of the premium costs, based on enrollment across all PEBB medical plans."

This "average employee contribution at around 12%" compares very favorably to those in the private sector that still have jobs and health insurance. According to a 2008 study on state health care costs by the Washington Alliance for a Competitive Economy:

“State employee health care benefits are generous, and the 12 percent share of prem!
iums paid by employees is low. A recent Towers Perrin survey of 200 large employers found that the average employee’s share of health care premiums was 22.6 percent in 2008, up from 20.1 percent in 2003 (Towers Perrin 2008).”

Despite this fact, PEBB member Greg Devereux (head of the Washington Federation of State Employees) had this to say about the vote:

“This today is an absolute travesty...They (the Legislature) won’t tax anybody else, but they’ll tax state employees…I think it’s a crime. The Legislature didn’t have the guts to provide the health care funds. They are destroying the quality of the workforce in this state.”

Needless to say Devereux was among the no votes.

Meanwhile the Seattle Times reports:

"In what is becoming an annual ordeal
for policyholders, Regence BlueShield is raising premiums for 135,000
individual health-plan members in Washington by an average 17 percent
on Aug. 1.

It is the third consecutive year that the state's largest provider of
individual coverage has boosted rates by double digits. And it comes
after two other insurers, Group Health Cooperative and LifeWise Health
Plan of Washington, recently imposed similarly steep premium increases."

Considering the average public employee versus private employee health care costs, was the PEBB's decision "a crime" or instead grounded in economic reality?

It appears the only alternative would be taxes increases or additional service cuts to provide the benefits demanded by Devereux and others.

Sneak peak at supplemental budget

July 2, 2009 in Blog

Although the new fiscal year and biennium are only 1 day old, it's not too early to start thinking about next year's supplemental budget. Based on yesterday's caseload forecast, the Governor is already hinting at what agencies can expect to be proposed.

Here are details on the caseload forecast as reported in The Olympian:

"More Washington residents will receive Medicaid and children’s health assistance in the next two years than earlier forecast, creating a $250 million shortfall in the state’s already-strained budget.

The new forecast was released Wednesday by the Caseload Forecast Council, and Gov. Chris Gregoire’s budget office released an analysis showing that $113.4 million of the expected increase is in aid to needy families that qualify for Medicaid.

An additional $69.6 million!
is for children’s health care, including some children whose families qualify for Medicaid and others whose citizenship has not been verified. General Assistance Unemployed costs also are up $12 million, and nursing-home costs are up by $6 million."

Coupled with last month's poor revenue forecast, the state's new budget is already projected to be in the red. In response, the Governor's budget office (OFM) sent a memo to agency directors yesterday detailing her strategy:

"On June 18, the Governor directed the following administrative actions by cabinet agencies:
  • Full Time Equivalent (FTE) reductions equivalent to a 2 percent reduction in 2009-11 budgeted GFS FTEs.
  • Continuation of specific GFS savings in out-of-state travel and training, personal services contracts, and equipment purchases.
  • Spending restricted to only critically necessary activities.

She also has encouraged non-Cabinet agencies to impose similar measures.

The Governor’s reductions are intended to create savings that mitigate the effect of the June revenue drop. OFM will continue to watch revenue collections and caseload/enrollment projections as we approach the September and November forecast updates for GFS revenues. Ongoing expenditure and revenue pressures will very likely require further action, including revisions in a 2010 supplemental budget. The reductions in this memo represent the first steps toward supplemental budget changes for expenditures funded by the GFS."

Included in the memo are two tables showing the projected FTE and spending reductions. These figures are a good first look at what the Governor may propose in a supplemental budget.

If enacted by agencies, the Governor's proposal would reduce FTEs below budgeted numbers by approximately 642 and spending by $374 million.

While this is a good first step, additional spending corrections by the Legislature next session will be necessary to rebuild the state's rainy day account. Otherwise we may not be able to respond effectively to any future curve balls the struggling economy may throw our way.

The convergence of technology and democracy

July 1, 2009 in Blog

There's no doubt that 2008 was an evolutionary leap forward in the use, and focus on, technology as a main driver of civic involvement in the democratic process. Then-candidate-Obama's masterful use of social networking for both messaging and fundraising took the nation, and the electorate, by storm. By comparison, the Republicans ramped up their focus on technology trends as well, but let's face it, the Democrats fired on all cylinders in this area.

Will lawmakers pledge to read healthcare bill before voting?

June 30, 2009 in Blog

2009 may go down in history as one of the most ambitious policy years in history. First there was the 1,073 page federal "stimulus" bill passed by Congress in February. Then last Friday the House passed the 1,200 page cap-and-trade bill. Next up is the restructuring of the nation's health care sector with current proposals totaling hundreds of pages.

Congress is considering these massive proposals under the direction of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi who promised in 2006 to "create the most open and honest government in history," if given power. In fact, she went a step further and said, "Lawmakers must have the opportunity to read every bill before they vote on it. It’s common sense."

With Pelosi running the House, it's safe to assume lawmakers were provided time to read these policy tomes line-by-line before adoption, right?

Wrong.

Bo!
th bills were voted on within hours of the final versions being made available. 

Hoping to change this, one citizen group is asking lawmakers to sign a pledge to read and post online for 72 hours the health care bill before voting. As reported by Politico:

. . . Let Freedom Ring, a group that promotes constitutional government and traditional values, has launched a campaign to get all 535 lawmakers in the House and Senate to pledge to not vote on the health care bill (likely to top 1,000 pages) until they have personally read it and the bill has been posted on the Internet for 72 hours.

“People were shaken into a new state of awareness when people talked about the size of the stimulus bill and the fact that, in all probability, no member of Congress or senator had read the bill,” said Colin A. Hanna, president of Let !
Freedom Ring. “That struck people as inherently absurd, almo!
st in the existential, theater-of-the-absurd sense. We all know lots of bills are not read, but sometimes the scope and nature of a bill rises to a different level than everyday legislation.”

The full text of the pledge reads:

I pledge to my constituents and to the American people that I will not vote to enact any healthcare reform package that:
1) I have not read, personally, in its entirety; and,

2) Has not been available, in its entirety, to the American people on the Internet for at least 72 hours, so that they can read it too.

Simple enough. Read the law you are proposing and allow voters the time to read it as well. Seeing how this is supposed to be the most transparent Congress in history, no doubt Pelosi is encouraging lawmakers to sign this ple!
dge, right?

Additional Information
Lawmakers to arm wrestle Speaker to see copy of cap-and-trade bill before vote

Lawmakers to arm wrestle Speaker to see copy of cap-and-trade bill before vote

June 26, 2009 in Blog

Ok, so the arm wrestling comment was an exaggeration but according to Politico only one copy of the cap-and-trade bill was available on the floor of the House today:

“Republicans say Democrats are ramming their climate-change legislation through the House without enough time for members to read the bill — let alone to understand it — all in violation of their promises about creating a more transparent legislative process.

Rep. Joe Barton (R-Tex.), running the debate for his party, asked repeatedly Friday afternoon if there was even a copy of the current version of the bill anywhere in the House chamber. Democratic Rep. Ellen Tauscher – sitting in the speaker’s chair although she’s already been confirmed as Obama’s undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security — repeatedly dod!
ged the question.

Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), one of the bill’s sponsors, finally rose to say that a single copy of the current version of the bill was available at the speaker’s desk and on the Internet, which members would have to leave the floor to access.”

I know democracy can be messy but this is ridiculous. Is it asking too much for members of the House to take the time to at least read and understand this 1,200 page bill before voting?

Additional Information
ReadTheBill FAIL: Cap and Trade Edition
Web voters support 72 hour budget timeout
WPC response to Governor's letter!
on cap-and-trade

Federal Transportation budget going broke....again

June 25, 2009 in Blog

From AASHTO....

On June 24th Deputy Secretary of Transportation John D. Porcari sent a
letter to the chief executive officers of every state department of
transportation in the country advising them of an impending cash shortfall in
the Highway Trust Fund (HTF). The HTF is the federal funding source for
thousands of state highway projects, which support hundreds of thousands of
jobs, across the country.

The Deputy Secretary's letter put all state DOTs on notice, warning that
instead of sending states overnight reimbursements for transportation
investments, the Federal Highway Administration could begin to ration state
repayments; possibly shifting to weekly or bi-weekly payments in the event that
state reimbursement requests exceed the cash available in the Highway Trust Fund.

Faced with the same crisis ten months ago, Congress transferred resources
from the general fund back into the HTF to prevent a shutdown of the Federal
Highway Program.

Using general fund dollars for the HTF can be dangerous at the federal level. Once the subsidy from the general fund reaches a certain amount, it triggers a provision that forces all future allocations to become subject to the regular budget process. This means transportation funding will have to compete with every other federal program, like defense and health care.

King County's sci-fi construction projects: Hulk, Jabba, Kahn and Kirk

June 25, 2009 in Blog

Earlier this week the State Auditor's Office released an accountability audit on King County's compliance with state laws and regulations and its own policies and procedures. The results weren't pretty.

According to the audit:

"Our audit found County officials should improve oversight and safeguards over its cash receipts, expenditures and assets. In many instances, oversight and safeguards were impaired by a lack of sufficient monitoring to ensure policies are complete, followed and staff is adequately trained to operate within those policies.

Further, County officials do not consistently provide or enforce performance measures or expectations in holding staff accountable. As a result, the County exposes itself to greater risk of loss, less ability to control expendi!
tures, and increases the risk for non-compliance with laws, regulations and contractual requirements. Consequently, our audit identified 12 findings."

The Auditor also attempted to conduct a performance audit of the County's construction management practices but terminated the audit "because the County was unable to provide complete and timely access to files and records related to construction projects" that the auditors requested.

Though a long list of problems was identified, perhaps the most curious finding of the audit concerned the County's management of construction records. From the audit (emphasis added):

"For the files we could access, we observed one file group where the naming conventions did not reflect what project or projects the file contained. The files observed were named after popular science fiction characters. >

County personnel stated the County does not have !
standard procedures for naming, organizing and storing electronic records and does not have protocols for file protection or shared drive access and permissions.

Instead, individual project managers are permitted to name their files whatever they want, organize them however they want and establish whatever restrictions to access they want."

So what sci-fi projects was King County engaged in?

In response to an email inquiry the Auditor's office said the files referenced above were named: Hulk, Jabba, Kahn and Kirk.

Though the County may escape the Wrath of Kahn, the wrath of voters is another story. In light of this audit you may start hearing them channeling the Hulk: "D!
on't make me angry, you wouldn't like me when I'm angry."

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