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

What have you done for me lately?

June 1, 2009 in Blog

Thanks to new policies on government transparency, members of congress who request an earmark in the upcoming surface transportation reauthorization bill (the federal transportation budget) must now list the requests on their official government website. So citizens can now find exactly what transportation projects each member of congress has requested.

Here is a preview with links to each member's full earmark request:

Congressman Jay Inslee                                                $207
million       List
of Projects
                 

Congressman Rick Larsen                                             $103
million       List
of Projects
                 

Congressman Brian Baird                                              $283
million       List
of Projects

Congressman Doc Hastings                                          $51
million         List
of Projects

Congresswoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers                      Unknown           List
of Projects

Congressman Norm Dicks                                            $42
million          List
of Projects

Congressman Jim McDermott                                       $199
million        List of Projects

Congressman Dave Reichert                                         $309
million        List of Projects

Congressman Adam Smith                                           $377.2
million     List of
Projects

Budget Tamiflu

May 21, 2009 in Blog

Interesting column today in the Seattle Times by Joni Balter on taxes and state budget problems. The focus of the article is how politicians in Washington claim if only the state had an income tax there wouldn't be any budget problems and how politicians in Oregon claim the same if only their state had a sales tax. Of course, as Balter points out, California has both and look at where that's left the state.

Here is the conclusion of the column:

"Washington and Oregon can trade a sales tax for an income tax or vice versa. But either way, both states will get sick in a down economy. There is no immunization from these tax systems for economic flu."

There is one way to avoid catching the budget flu, however: spend !
healthier (more responsibly) and not stay up all night binging away your savings.

Regardless of how you slice up the tax structure, states need to use a “three-legged stool” of sound budgeting:

  • Meaningful spending limit;
  • Protected 10% reserve account (so you don’t have to resort to tax increases or deep spending cuts in the bad times); and
  • Limiting base expenditures to core functions within the revenue forecast.

Here are the types of questions that should be asked before any activity receives taxpayer money:

  • Is the activity a core function of government or commercial in nature?
  • If it is a core function, can the service be provided more efficiently and effectively through competitive contracting?
  • Does it provide a broad public benefit or only serve a special interest?
  • Does it duplicate the activities of non-profits or other private initiatives?
  • Does it duplicate the efforts of other state agencies or programs?
  • Does the activity demonstrate quantifiable performance?

In fact, you could say that asking and answering these questions combined with utilizing sound budgeting tools is the equivalent of taking budget Tamiflu to head off the cyclical "economic flu" season.

Governor refuses to save DNR's executive plane

May 20, 2009 in Blog

Usually when environmentalists talk about flying and climate-change the discussion focuses on getting rid of executive aircraft, not saving them. When it comes to the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) 8-passenger King Air, however, Lands Commissioner Peter Goldmark asked the Governor to save his airplane, in part due to climate-change.

First some background. In an effort to balance the budget the Legislature decided DNR “shall dispose of the King Air aircraft it currently owns. Disposal of the aircraft must occur no later than June 30, 2010.”

In response to this, Goldmark sent Governor Gregoire a letter on May 6 demanding that she veto this forced sale and save his plane. Goldmark’s letter reads in-part:

“This threatens the state’s ability to effectively fight!
wildfires and respond to natural disasters. It compromises our ability to save the state and its residents millions of dollars each year. This is the wrong direction for maintaining our emergency response infrastructure while climate change is causing increased frequency and severity of wildfires and major climatic events causing floods, landslides, and utility damage . . . Disposing of our aircraft in the face of more wildfires, and climate-change related storms is simply the opposite direction that the state should be headed with its emergency response infrastructure.”

This claim caught the attention of former DNR Communications Director and current Washington Policy Center Environmental Director Todd Myers.

“Two problems. First, the plane in question isn’t an air tanker. It is an executive aircraft that is not part of the ‘emergency-response infrastructure’ in any real sense,” said Myers. “Second, his claim about needing the plane to !
address an increasing number of ‘climate-change-related stor!
ms’ is contradicted by scientists.”

Myers points to this statement by University of Washington climatologist Cliff Mass:

 “As an environmental scientist, I am frustrated by the poor information distributed by public officials, the media and others regarding the current and predicted frequency of extreme weather events. It is time for the scientific community to set the record straight . . . How many times have you heard that severe windstorms and heavy rains will increase in the Northwest under global climate change? The truth is, there is no strong evidence for these claims and the whole matter is being actively researched. Some portions of the Northwest have had more rain and wind during the past decades, some less. And initial simulations of future Northwest climate do not suggest heavier rain events.”

>
“Those who want to use climate change to support particular policies often claim that we must ‘follow the science.’ When there is a conflict between their desired policy and the science, however, they are quick to distort the science or ignore it altogether,” concludes Myers.

It looks like Myers wasn’t the only one not persuaded by Goldmark’s arguments. The Governor refused to veto the sale of DNR’s plane when she signed the budget on May 19.

Governor restores performance audit funding

May 19, 2009 in Blog

With a stroke of her pen, Governor Gregoire today restored the $29 million raided by lawmakers from the State Auditor's dedicated performance audit account. We first raised the prospect of a veto on April 29 after legislators ignored State Auditor Sonntag's request to reduce the 73% reduction in available performance audit funds. On May 5, Sonntag formally requested a veto in this letter to the Governor.

Discussing her veto, the Governor said the State Auditor has agreed to keep $15 million of the fu!
nds in reserve to be transferred the next time the Legislature meets - this is the amount the Auditor had previously agreed to be reduced from the performance audit account.

At stake was whether or not the Auditor would be able to move forward with the comprehensive statewide performance review requested by the Governor while at the same time conducting robust performance audits of state and local governments to help identify opportunities for savings and reforms during this difficult economic time.

After the Governor issued her veto I asked the Auditor what this means for his performance audit work. This is what Sonntag told me: “We can now move ahead in our effort to help bring about real reform to state government programs, and at the same time honor our commitment to the citizens of the state who gave us performance audit responsibility.”

Illustrating the widespread public support for Sonntag's independent performance audit authority granted !
by the people in 2005, the state's newspaper editorial boa!
rds unanimously called on the Governor to veto the Legislature's raid of $29 million from the performance audit account. Here are those editorials:

Sound Transit's ridership is up and down

May 18, 2009 in Blog

In the world of transportation policy analysis, there is a lot of anticipation for the first quarter ridership reports on public transit.

Most agencies ended 2008 with large increases in transit use. The larger demand placed pressure on budgets and had policymakers calling for higher taxes to expand service. The larger demand also had some suggesting that society had fundamentally shifted behavior away from the personal automobile, which has federal officials calling for massive spending increases in traditional transit and high speed rail with the next reauthorization bill.

In her weekly email update, Joni Earl gave us a preview of Sound Transit's first quarter results:

Despite the shaky economy, ridership on our Sound Transit buses and trains was up the first three months of this year.

Through March, Sound Transit trains an!
d buses carried an average of about 55,500 every weekday, an increase of 10 percent from a year earlier.  The average weekday boardings for ST Express buses increased 10 percent, Sounder commuter trains 5 percent and Tacoma Link light rail 5 percent.

In the month of March alone, ridership was up 6 percent from the same month a year earlier.

When compared to the same quarter last year, ridership is higher, but what Sound Transit does not say is overall transit demand is down. Sound Transit ended 2008 with an average use of 57.7 thousand trips per day. During the first quarter of 2009, Joni Earl says the agency now serves about 55.5 thousand trips per day. Comparatively, that is nearly a 4 percent drop.

Given current fuel prices and high unemployment rates, transit demand should continue to fall throughout the rest of the year. Th!
is should relieve most of the pressure on transit budgets but !
I'm skeptical that policymakers will slow their call for higher taxes. The legislature just passed SB 5433, which gives transit agencies the ability to raise car tab's by $20 per vehicle, subject to voter approval. The same bill also gives King County the authority to raise property taxes by 7.5 cents per $1,000 of assessed value, without asking voters, to increase transit service.

Just like honey bees in a spring garden, these new taxes just might be too much sweetener for lawmakers to resist.

Legislative records exemption vote postponed again

May 12, 2009 in Blog

The Sunshine Committee's discussion on repealing the Legislature's exemption from the public records act is beginning to morph into the movie sequel of Groundhog Day.

After a very spirited discussion about the resolution pitting the lawmakers in attendance (Sen. Kline and Sen. Roach) against the other committee members, by a 4-3 vote the Sunshine Committee voted to table Chairman Carr's proposal (at his request) and move the final vote on this important issue to its July 15 meeting. Here is Carr's original resolution:

The Committee recommends that the legislature eliminate the Legislative exemption, which excludes from public scrutiny personal!
records of the legislature, including e-mails, correspondence, except when designated as a public record by a “official action of the Senate or House of Representatives.”  Every other legislative body in the state of Washington is fully subject to the public records act.  There is no principled reason why the state legislature should be exempt. 

This is not the first delay. The issue of the Legislature's exemption from public disclosure was first presented for consideration back in October 2007. At that time the Four Corners of the Legislature (Democrat and Republican Leadership) asked the Sunshine Committee to delay action until the Supreme Court could rule on whether a Legislative privilege exists in the state Constitution. Here is one of the briefs filed in that case by the Washington Coalition for Open Government and American Legislative Exc!
hange Council
.  

The Court, however,  did not rule on this issue leaving the law unclear. Then the Committee decided that no vote should occur until all four legislative members were present (Sen. Kline, Sen. Roach, Rep. Kessler, and Rep. Rodne). Unfortunately that prerequisite to date has not occurred. 

Chairman Carr's proposal was then added to the March 18, 2009 meeting but since none of the legislative members were in attendance the vote was postponed until today's meeting. Although Carr hoped to have a vote today, the agenda failed to note that a vote was scheduled, so he felt it best to postpone action once again so the agenda could explicitly show a vote would occur.

One of the more interesting exchanges today about the legislative exemption focused on the!
state's and Seattle's budget shortfall. Committee member Ramsey Ramerman said that although Seattle's deficit is $43 million, the city council is being forced to discuss the options in public. Ramerman noted, however, that when it came to the state's $9 billion budget shortfall conversations about the options happened behind closed doors.

As for his proposed resolution, Carr is exactly right when he said today, "Open Government is not easy but it is best.”

Hopefully this principle will prevail when the Sunshine Committee finally holds this long overdue vote.

I-960 in legislative crosshairs

May 8, 2009 in Blog

Initiative 960, The Taxpayer Protection Act, loomed large this session as some lawmakers proposed but ultimately failed to adopt any of their tax increase bills. Adopted by the voters in 2007, I-960 (among other things) re-affirmed state law requiring state tax increases be adopted with a two-thirds vote in the Legislature. This threshold proved too high a hurdle for proponents of tax increases to overcome. As a result at least one State Senator has already gone on the record signaling her intention to repeal the law.

TVW's Inside Olympia has the scoop in this video interview with Senator Jeanne Kohl-Welles (D-Seattle):

2009-11 budget priorities

May 8, 2009 in Blog

With the threat of a special session now over, the next major policy development will be when the Governor takes action on the 2009-11 budget proposal. It is certain that some vetoes will be forthcoming. The State Auditor hopes that his performance audit funding will be restored while the state Lands Commissioner wants his executive plane saved from the chopping block.

What proposed spending from the budget might warrant a line-item veto? Here are some possibilities:

•    Sec 122: $460,000 for Asian affairs commission.

•    Sec 124 (3): Creates a bounty for audit savings to restore performance audit funding – this is a violation of yellow-book standards and the intent of I-900 (budget also raids $29 million from dedicated performance audit account).

•    Sec 128 (9): $40,000 for Spanish TV.

•    Sec 128 (27): $300,000 is raided from the dedicated Auto Theft prevention account for CTED to “contract with a community group” for community building (organizing).

•    Sec 134: $513,000 for Hispanic affairs commission.

•    Sec 135: $487,000 for African American affairs commission.

•    Sec 141: $3,622,000 (all funds) for Office of Minority and Women Business.

•    Sec!
148: $209,323,000 (all funds) for Liquor Control Board.
!

•    Sec 152: $9,548,000 (all funds) for Public Employment Relations Commission.

•    Sec 153: $4,465,000 (all funds) for Department of Archeology and Historic Preservation.

•    Sec 155: $117,122,000 (all funds) for state trade and convention center.

•    Sec 215: $6,915,000 (all funds) for Human Rights Commission.

•    Sec 501: $50,000 for OSPI is “provided solely for developing and disseminating curriculum and other materials documenting women's role in World War II.”

•    Sec 610 (3): “At least” $200,000 for Labor Center at Evergreen State College.

•    Sec 619: $6,736,000 (all funds) for state Arts Commiss!
ion.

•    Sec 620: $5,228,000 for state Historical Society.

•    Sec 621: $3,267,000 for Eastern Washington Historical Society.

Here are some other policy decisions from the budget worth keeping an eye on:

•    Sec 303 (4): State parks commission “shall actively pursue transferring ownership of state parks to local governments, tribes, or other entities that have expressed an interest in operating the park.” (Report due on 12/1/09)

•    Sec 307 (9): Fish and Wildlife “shall dispose of all fixed wing aircraft it currently owns . . . Disposal of the aircraft must occur no later than June 30, 2010.”

•    Sec 308 (8): Natural Resources “shall dispose of the King Air aircraft it currently owns. Disposal of the aircraft must occur no later than June 30,!
2010”

•    Sec 402 (3-4): “The stat!
e patrol shall implement a cost recovery method to fully recover costs for operating the two king air airplanes. Users of the plane, including the state patrol and the governor's office, shall be charged an appropriate amount to cover all operating and maintenance costs of the plane. The state patrol shall report on this method, the rates being charged, total operational expenses, and information regarding usage of the planes to the office of financial management and the appropriate committees of the legislature. The 2010 legislature will review the use of king air planes by the executive branch and the adequacy of funding in this budget regarding maintaining and operating the planes to successfully accomplish their mission.”

•    Sec 605 (7): “By September 1, 2009, the state board for community and technical colleges, the higher education coordinating board, and the office of financial management shall review and to the extent necessa!
ry revise current 2009-11 performance measures and targets based on the level of state, tuition, and other resources appropriated or authorized in this act and in the omnibus 2009-11 omnibus capital budget act. The boards and the office of financial management shall additionally develop new performance targets for the 2011-13 and the 2013-15 biennia that will guide and measure the community and technical college system's contributions to achievement of the state's higher education master plan goals.”

•    Sec 612 (1):  “Within the funds appropriated in this section, the higher education coordinating board shall complete a system design planning project that defines how the current higher education delivery system can be shaped and expanded over the next ten years to best meet the needs of Washington citizens and businesses for high quality and accessible post-secondary education. The board shall propose policies and specific,!
fiscally feasible implementation recommendations to accomplish the goa!
ls established in the 2008 strategic master plan for higher education. The project shall specifically address the roles, missions, and instructional delivery systems both of the existing and of proposed new components of the higher education system; the extent to which specific academic programs should be expanded, consolidated, or discontinued and how that would be accomplished; the utilization of innovative instructional delivery systems and pedagogies to reach both traditional and nontraditional students; and opportunities to consolidate institutional administrative functions. The study recommendations shall also address the proposed location, role, mission, academic program, and governance of any recommended new campus, institution, or university center. During the planning process, the board shall inform and actively involve the chairs from the senate and house of representatives committees on higher education, or their designees. The board shall report the findings an!
d recommendations of this system design planning project to the governor and the appropriate committees of the legislature by December 1, 2009.”

•    Sec 906: “The governor shall convene a work group consisting of representatives from the central service agencies and their clients to collaborate on methods for providing commonly needed services to state agencies, including, but not limited to: Human resource management, employee benefits, payroll, accounting, purchasing, information technology, real estate services, facility management, building and grounds maintenance, fleet management, printing services, and office mail distribution. The work group should consider the experience of other states and large organizations and should identify opportunities to improve service delivery and reduce costs, including, but not limited to: (1) Simplifying processes and gaining efficiencies; (2) Using a shared, common service model;(3) Centralizing se!
rvices or activities which may lead to consolidating or eliminating exi!
sting programs or state agencies; and (4) Revising agencies' authority or governance structures. The work group shall submit a proposal that improves the delivery of central services to state agencies, including changes to the current governance structure, organizational changes that improves and simplifies service delivery, and any statutory changes that may be necessary to the governor by October 1, 2009.”

•    Sec 912: “As a management tool to reduce costs and make more effective use of resources, while improving employee productivity and morale, agencies may implement a voluntary retirement, separation, and/or downshifting incentive program that is cost neutral or results in cost savings over a two year period following the commencement of the program, provided that such a program is approved by the director of financial management . . . Agencies are required to submit a report by June 30, 2011, to the legislature and the office of!
financial management on the outcome of their approved incentive program. The report should include information on the details of the program including resulting service delivery changes, agency efficiencies, the cost of the incentive per participant, the total cost to the state, and the projected or actual net dollar savings over the 2009-11 biennium.”

Sunshine Committee still shining

May 7, 2009 in Blog

Though the forecast for the state's Sunshine Committee was dark and stormy during the 2009 Legislative Session, it still exists and will meet on May 12. Charged with reviewing the hundreds of exemptions to the state's public records law, the Sunshine Committee was targeted for elimination under several bills considered this year. Up until the last day of session it was unclear if any of these bills would pass. Since none did the Sunshine Committee is now free to continue its important work.

One of the issues on the committee's May 12 agenda is repealing the Legislature's exemption from the public records act. Committee Chair Tom Carr is proposing the following resolution:

The
Committee recommends that the legislature eliminate the Legislative
exemption, which excludes from public scrutiny personal records of the
legislature, including e-mails, correspondence, except when designated
as a public record by a “official action of the Senate or House of
Representatives.”  Every other legislative body in the state of
Washington is fully subject to the public records act.  There is no
principled reason why the state legislature should be exempt. 

If adopted by the committee, this change would address the Legislature's double standard when it comes to compliance with the public records law. 

Another proposal of note is a recommendation to sunset all exemptions to the public records act after two years unless the Legislature reauthorizes them. This resolution is being offered by committee member Patience Rogge: 

Be it Resolved that it is the sense of this committee that all
exemptions to the Public Records Act and any statutory basis to
withhold information or records be eliminated after two years unless
specifically reauthorized by the Legislature with the exception of
those ten included in the original legislation; and that the
Legislature examine all of the eliminated exemptions individually, and
Further, that all future exemptions be limited to a term of two years
and be examined by the Legislature upon their expiration on a case by
case basis to determine if they merit reauthorization or should be
eliminated or revised.

Here are additional details on the Sunshine Committee's May 12 public meeting

State Auditor asks Governor to veto performance audit changes

May 5, 2009 in Blog

The State Auditor's Office sent Governor Gregoire a letter yesterday
formally requesting that she veto changes in the budget to the
performance audit program. Here is the Auditor's letter in full:

Dear Governor Gregoire:

I am writing to respectfully request your veto of Section 124 (3) of the state operating
budget and to encourage you to work with state lawmakers to restore at least $14
million of the $29 million in performance audit funding being taken from the State
Auditor's budget over the next two years.

As passed, Section 124 (3) of this budget violates government auditing standards, as
explained in the attached letters. This section should be vetoed for that reason alone.
Additionally, enacting this budget into law could have far-reaching consequences, such
as affecting this state's ability to properly account for billions of dollars in American
Recovery and Reinvestment Act money that wil!
l be so important in getting the state's
families and economy back on their feet. Comprehensive oversight of these dollars is
absolutely critical.

Section 124 (3) also sets up a perverse relationship between our Office and state
agencies. Tying our performance audit dollars to actual cost-savings by agencies
deeply compromises agencies' perception of our objectivity and independence.
Regarding funding for performance audits, I wish to re-emphasize that taking away
nearly three-quarters of our budget for that work decimates a program Washington
citizens made very clear they wanted when they approved Initiative 900.

The size of the reduction also impedes efforts we agreed to undertake on a statewide
performance review that we hope will be another step in bringing about true, meaningful
reform of state government. With your advocacy and support, we have been putting
together a plan for this review !
and we remain committed to producing recommendations
to s!
ave money, to streamline operations and to eliminate duplication and outdated
programs.

The $15 million we agreed to have the Legislature sweep from our current performance
audit fund balance would have reduced that budget by about 50 percent, but it was
similar to fund balance sweeps at other agencies, As passed by the Legislature, the
budget reflected a 73 percent cut ($29 million) in our performance audit funds.

We also are disappointed at the Legislature's failure to recognize that our 15 completed
audits identified nearly $500 million in cost savings and unnecessary spending for state
government alone. Considering the cost to conduct those audits, we have achieved a
10-to-1 return on investment.

We remain committed to helping you provide oversight over the stimulus funding and
set state government on a leaner, more effective path for the future and again, request
a veto of Section 124 and!
restoration of at least $14 million to our performance audit
funding.

Sincerely,

BRIAN SONNTAG
STATE AUDITOR

Included as attachments were the following letters explaining how the performance audit proviso violates auditing standards:

Additional Information
Will veto restore performance audit funding?