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.

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State Supreme Court hit with audit finding

May 3, 2010 in Blog

When thinking of the various grievances one could have with the state Supreme Court, financial mismanagement doesn't usually come to mind. According to an audit released today, however, it looks like even the state's highest court is in need of a watchful eye. From the audit

"During our audit of the Supreme Court, we reviewed its cash-receipting. The Court collects an average of $62,000 a year from filing fees, copying charges, fines, charges for processing Washington State Bar Association applications and fees for certificates. Most of the revenue is received in the mail or over the counter.

We found the Court’s internal controls are inadequate to prevent or detect the misappropriation of public funds:

  • The Court does not have a system in place to estimate expected revenue.
  • No one reconciles expected revenue, cases opened in the Court’s docket system and money deposited.
  • No one reconciles the cash-receipt book and mail log to the deposit.
  • Duties are not adequately segregated. The person responsible for making the deposit also has access to the accounting system. No one independently reconciles the deposit to the accounting system.
  • The Court does not record all incoming revenue. Filing fees included in boxes of case records delivered to the Court are not entered on a mail log.
  • The Court does not consistently record all cash received over the counter in the receipt book.
  • A page had been removed from the receipt book.
  • Only one person opens the mail.
  • The deposit detail (i.e. mail log) includes checks that are not actually being deposited. The Court does not deposit daily and often holds checks until the service for which the payment is received is performed.

We attempted to reconcile the expected revenue to actual revenue deposited by the Court. We were unable to match the number and type of cases filed and recorded in the Court’s case management system to the receipts posted in the accounting system.

We have not identified any compensating controls that diminish the risk associated with the lack of internal controls over the cash receipting process.

We noted these weaknesses in the prior audit. Court managers have not established policies and procedures to correct them.

The Court cannot ensure all funds received were receipted and deposited. This increases the risk of loss of public funds. These conditions impair the Court’s ability to prevent or detect errors and irregularities in a timely manner, if at all."

It is disappointing that these problems were identified in a previous audit but have yet to be corrected. 

Justice should be blind but the Court's books sho!
uldn't be.

Washington Policy Center's Proposal to Replace the Business and Occupation Tax

May 2, 2010 in Publications

Washington Policy Center has developed a proposal to improve the business climate and expand economic opportunities for all Washingtonians by replacing the Business and Occupation (B&O) tax with a simple, fair and uniform business tax. The benefits of the proposal are that it is:

Replacing the Business and Occupation Tax with a Single Business Tax

May 2, 2010 in Publications

A tax is defined as “a sum of money to be paid by people or business firms to a government, to be used for public purposes.” Taxes pay for important public services such as schools, roads, social work and much more. Beyond the revenue raised for government, taxes influence the daily decisions of individuals and businesses and they impose a substantial financial burden on citizens. The cost of taxes particularly affects small business owners, who do not have the resources large corporations have to manage the complexity of national, state and local tax regulations.

In Our View: Cameras in Courts

May 2, 2010 in In the News
The Columbian (Vancouver)
The Columbian (Vancouver)
Sunday, May 2, 2010

Washington's congressional delegation should join transparency caucus

April 30, 2010 in Blog

Yesterday 27 Republicans and Democrats in the U.S. House officially launched a Transparency Caucus.

As reported by NextGov:

"We're going to do a review and find out whether the public accepts the current disclosure," said Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., co-founding chairman of the caucus and ranking Republican on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

One of the group's first actions will be to ensure that information posted on the Web from every branch of government is consistent, searchable and downloadable, he said. The uniform level of reporting would allow citizens to have a better context for comparing spending figures such as federal officials'!
; compensation and earmarks, or appropriations for lawmakers' pet projects.

The goal of the caucus, which was announced in March, is to advance transparency and accountability across government. Measuring these goals will require online access to government information in formats that can be searched and downloaded for free, according to the caucus' principles. The group plans to make such information available by educating lawmakers, taking legislative action and overseeing existing polices.

"Our greatest challenge and mandate in government is regaining the public's trust," said Rep. Mike Quigley, D-Ill., the caucus' other co-founding chairman. "It means not just paying lip service, but taking financial responsibility, transparency and ethics as seriously as the voters want us to. If we can make the tough decisions and prove these as our priorities to the public, trust will follow."

Noticeably abs!
ent from the caucus are any members from Washington state. As !
a national leader on open government issues it is disappointing to not see our state represented. Hopefully Washington's Representatives will soon join this effort and Senators Murray and Cantwell will work to form a Senate Transparency Caucus.

It's time to televise U.S. Supreme Court hearings

April 29, 2010 in Blog

Though C-SPAN may never boast the highest ratings on television, it is likely there would have been a spike in Washington state viewers if yesterday's Supreme Court arguments on the state's public records law were televised.

A bill being considered by the Senate Judiciary Committee may help to encourage reluctant Supreme Court Justices to allow their proceedings to be televised. According to The Hill

A handful of lawmakers on the Senate Judiciary Committee hope to compel the Supreme Court to begin televising its proceedings.

Days after Justice Steven Br!
eyer shot down the prospect that the high bench would permit cameras in the court room this year, 13 committee members from both parties voted to advance legislation that would force SCOTUS to do just that.

A similar effort to express the "sense of the Senate in support of permitting the televising of Supreme Court proceedings" also cleared the committee on a 13-6 vote on Thursday. However, that effort is more symbolic, and would not have the force of law.

“Television coverage of the Supreme Court is long overdue, and I’m pleased that the Committee made progress on this front today,” said Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Pa.).  “The Supreme Court makes pronouncements on Constitutional and federal law that have a direct impact on the rights of all Americans. Those rights would be substantially enhanced by televising the oral arguments of the Court so that the public can see and hear the issues presented.”

The committee also cl!
eared a third bill on Thursday that would instruct lower feder!
al district and circuit courts to televise their proceedings too. Led by Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), the legislation carves out an exception for cases that could "endanger trial participants."

Our state version of C-SPAN, TVW, has been televising state Supreme Court hearings for years. It is past time for the federal courts to be brought into the 21st Century and allow citizens to see firsthand the legal arguments being made that may impact our rights as Americans. 

Back to yesterday's Supreme Court hearing on the state's public records law, it looks like opponents of public disclosure for signature petitions have a new ally - Bill Gates Sr.

Here is an excerpt from an interview with the Stranger: 

Question: Here’s a qu!
estion that’s only tangentially connected, but it’s timely. This week, the United States Supreme Court is taking up a lawsuit that grew out of Referendum 71, in which the court will ultimately answer the question of whether petition signatures for initiatives and referendums in our state should become public record. How do you feel about that debate?

Gates Sr.: I lean in the direction that it shouldn’t be public, doesn’t need to be public. You know, I don’t think that the initiative process is the best thing that’s ever happened to government, to start with. And I think there would be a concern that in signing this, my name will be on page three of the Seattle Times tomorrow morning and it adds something… negative to signing a petition, and that concerns me. That’s it.

Of course, this argument didn't sit too well with Justice Scalia who said yesterday, " . . .the people [of] Washingt!
on evidently think that this is not too much of an imposition upon peop!
le's courage, to -- to stand up and sign something and be willing to stand behind it."

State's public records law on trial

April 28, 2010 in Blog

Today was a big day for Attorney General Rob McKenna, Secretary of State Sam Reed, and supporters of the state's public records law. The U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the case of Doe v. Reed. The controversy focuses on whether the signature petitions to overturn R-71 are public records and can be disclosed.

Here are details from McKenna's press release:

Laws granting access to government records are constitutional, and the public’s right to double-check election officials and signature gatherers should be upheld.

That’s part of the case Washington State Attorney General Rob McKenna took to the U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday, as he defended the latest challenge to Washington state’s Public Records Act.

“Access to government information, including referendum petitions, allows Washingtonians to trust – but verify !
– their government’s work,” McKenna said. “The public’s right to government records is an overriding state interest and shouldn’t be pushed aside because of one controversial ballot campaign.”

McKenna added that locking up petitions invites fraud that can’t be uncovered through a simple public records request. The state’s brief cites petition fraud cases from several other states, including Arkansas, Montana, Oklahoma and Nevada, as well as the District of Columbia.

McKenna and Washington Secretary of State Sam Reed also put the case in context of widespread attacks on open government laws.

“The petitioners have launched more than 25 cases to reduce disclosure and transparency in elections,” said Secretary of State Sam Reed. “This is a national effort to challenge open record laws around the country.”

Reading the tea leaves it looks like the state's public records law will prev!
ail. Here are the transcripts from the oral arguments

Justice Antonin Scalia wins first prize for his numerous zingers. Here is a sampling:

" . . .the people [of] Washington evidently think that this is not too much of an imposition upon people's courage, to -- to stand up and sign something and be willing to stand behind it."

"You know, you can't run a democracy this way, with everybody being afraid of having his political positions known."

". . . in light of the fact that for the first century of our existence, even voting was public -- you either did it raising your hand or by voice, or later, you had a ballot that was very visibly red or blue so that people knew which party you were voting for -- the fact is that running a democracy takes a certain amount of civic courage. And the First Amendment does not protect you from criticism or even nasty phone!
calls when you exercise your political rights to legislate, or to take part in the legislative process. You are asking us to enter into a whole new field where we have never gone before."

Also note this exchange with McKenna:

JUSTICE SCALIA: It -- it may be an issue in which his administration has taken a particularly firm stand and the public may not trust the job that the Secretary of State does.

GENERAL McKENNA: That goes to the heart to the Public Records Act, Justice Scalia, trust but verify. The people did not leave to the State the idea that, well, we will let you know what you need to know.

JUSTICE SCALIA: Trust but verify, I like that.

We'll know later this summer if a majority of the justices also like that argument and vote to uphold the state's public records act.

State's Public Records Law On Trial

April 28, 2010 in In the News
Seattle PostGlobe
Seattle PostGlobe
Wednesday, April 28, 2010