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.

What's New

Nearly half the signers of economists’ letter calling for a tax increase are not economists...

February 24, 2009 in Blog

...but they do benefit from government spending.

On February 19, the left-leaning Washington State Budget and Policy Center caused a flurry of attention when it issued a dramatic press release calling for a tax increase: “Economists Urge Lawmakers to Consider All Options in Addressing State Deficit.” The group has long advocated tax increases and a state income tax.

The press release resulted in the desired media coverage:

  • “Economists urge Legislature to raise taxes to deal with budget,” The News Tribune, February 19.
  • More economists sign on to pro-tax letter,” The Capitol Record, February 20.
  • "28 Washington economists have signed a letter to [state leaders]. The letter urges them to consider tax increases....” The Olympian, February 20.
  • "State economists: Raise taxes, please,” The Bellingham Herald, February 20.

Further investigation, however, reveals that nearly half of letter signers, eleven of 28, are not economists.  The non-economists include:

  • an associate professor of public health administration
  • a sustainable systems analyst
  • an assistant professor of social work
  • a research associate in sustainable agriculture
  • a public policy researcher
  • two historians
  • four professors of public affairs

In addition, nearly all the letter signers have a vested interest in urging the public to accept a higher tax burden to support larger government budgets; they either are directly employed by tax-funded institutions, such as a public university or community college, or they otherwise gain from public spending.

It is not unusual for people to promote public policies that benefit themselves, that is standard lobbying, but lawmakers should not give special weight to a letter claiming to give expert economic advice that does not come from economists.

Changes coming to union contract law?

February 18, 2009 in Blog

The Olympian reports this morning that state union leaders may begin discussions with the Senate Majority Leader about potential compromises to save state employee jobs. According to the article:

Majority Leader Lisa Brown, D-Spokane, said she expects discussions with state employee unions about ways to preserve jobs. Areas to explore, she has said, include furloughs and worker contributions to health-insurance, among other topics. Washington now covers all but 12 percent of the insurance cost, a low percentage compared to the private sector.

While a positive development, such legislative negotiations may prove difficult in light of the collective bargaining law unions fought for in 2002. Consider RCW 41.80.010:

. . . The legislature !
shall approve or reject the submission of the request for funds as a whole. The legislature shall not consider a request for funds to implement a collective bargaining agreement unless the request is transmitted to the legislature as part of the governor's budget document submitted under RCW 43.88.030 and 43.88.060.

Basically there is no role under current law for the legislature concerning state employment contracts except to approve or reject in their entirety. This means the unions need to go back and negotiate with the Governor since the legislature isn't able to provide any relief.

Of course, lawmakers could get back in the game by changing the collective bargaining law and returning authority over state employment and compensation issues back to the legislature.

More Stimulating This Year than Last

February 13, 2009 in Blog

One year ago, in response to President Bush's stimulus proposal, I asked the question, "Is Government Spending Good for the Economy?" I expressed skepticism, saying:

...stimulus checks without spending reductions and government spending are similar. Both take money from people in the form of taxes and then put it back into the economy in the form of rebates or government spending. Rebates are better because they go where the economy needs it most (i.e. where demand is high) whereas government spending goes where politicians decide.

At the time, the Seattle Times agreed, saying in an editorial:

In fact, the economy is not a mechanism operated by the president. It is all of us, earning, spending, saving and investing. ... These problems are not going to be fixed with $500 checks. They will be fixed by people cutting their losses, replenishing their savings, adjusting their attitudes about risk and making better decisions.

They seem to have had a change of heart, however. Here's what they said today about President Obama's stimulus package, the economy and by whom it is operated:

A welcome jolt for Washington jobs.
The economic-stimulus package up for a final vote in Congress will infuse the Washington economy with money for jobs, infrastructure improvements and funds for a variety of assistance programs. A welcome jolt of help as the contours of an economic crisis are revealed. ... Beyond the infrastructure improvements themselves, infusions of jobs-producing money translates into mortgage and rent payments and all the usual consumer purchases that fuel families and communities.

Our opinion hasn't changed. Why the Seattle Times changed their mind is open to speculation.

Governor 1, Unions 0

February 12, 2009 in Blog

The Olympian reports this morning that a Superior Court judge agreed the Governor was not required to forward the collective bargaining agreements with state employee pay raises to the legislature as part of her budget. From the article:

Gov. Chris Gregoire should have done things differently in negotiating with state employee unions, but her decision to shelve new contracts with the unions stands, Thurston County Superior Court Judge Anne Hirsch said Wednesday.

Gregoire confused the process when she had her budget director serve as both the negotiator and the person who later declared that contracts for raises and health benefits were financially unreasonable, the judge said.

But the governor does have the power to back out of contracts after the Oct. 1 deadline to finish talks, Hirsch said, noting the law separately requires the b!
udget office to certify them as feasible.

"I think (the decision) just muddies things further," said Greg Devereux, executive director of the Washington Federation of State Employees.

The union will appeal the decision, but it also must come to an agreement by the time the next two-year budget cycle starts in July, he said.

Considering the fact these contracts cost more than $3 million to negotiate, only to be canceled, it is time to end this experiment with sole negotiations with the Governor and return state employment and compensation issues to the legislature. This would allow these important decisions and trade-offs to be made in the public light of day of legislative hearings instead of behind closed doors.

State employee unions may even welcome this move in light of recent developments.

Union

Government reform: Next steps?

February 11, 2009 in Blog

Earlier this week Governor Gregoire announced phase one of her government reform package. The Governor stressed that this effort was just the first of many changes she thinks the state needs to make to become a 21st Century, customer focused government.

So what will phase two and three look like?

Thanks to the efforts of the Evergreen Freedom Foundation, we now can see the list of 87 ideas the Governor's budget and policy staff came up with to reform and change state government. It is possible those not yet implemented could show up in Governor's next round of reform recommendations.

Among their recommendations:

  • Eliminate state library
  • Eliminate Governor's salmon recovery office
  • Eliminate passenger rail program
  • Eliminate local government I-695 backfill
  • Consolidate Growth Hearings Boards
  • Reduce higher education program duplication among institutions
  • Combine "sin" agencies (Lottery, Liquor Control Board, Gambling and Horse Racing Commission)
  • Privatize lottery
  • Privatize liquor sales
  • Privatize child welfare services
  • Privatize state printer
  • Contract out DOT engineering

As for the Governor's proposed elimination of some state boards and commissions, here are additional details:

"Time to mess with the status quo"

February 9, 2009 in Blog

So said Governor Gregoire this morning as she announced her reform package for bringing state government into the 21st Century.

It is a good first step.

Here are some of the details from the Governor's one-page summary:

1. Reduce the size of the bureaucracy
The
proposal would eliminate more than 150 boards, commissions, and
advisory committees and consolidate several agencies, including the
merger of the Health Care Authority and the Department of Retirement
Systems.  All 470 of the current boards were created with the best
intentions, but often make it more cumbersome and costly to serve the
people of the state.

  • More than 50 boards will be eliminated immediately by executive order.
  • Another 100 will be repealed through legislation, some as of June 30, 2009, and others by June 30, 2010.
  • Other mergers include the Department of Archeology & Historical Preservation into State Parks.

 
2.  Deliver 21st century customer service
Washington
has been a national leader for years in using technology to serve
customers – for example, nearly 40% of license tabs are renewed online
– but we can do much more to make sure our citizens have the same 24/7
online convenience when they deal with government that they do for the
rest of their daily business, like online banking and booking airline
reservations.

  • Expanded online access and availability of mobile service units in rural communities.
  • Increased online
    instruction through community and technical colleges, where online
    course-taking is proving the instructional equivalent to four
    bricks-and-mortar colleges
  • Easier use of credit and debit cards in transactions with the state

 
3.  Streamlined government operations
The
state will consolidate similar functions and cut government’s internal
red tape for services needed by all agencies, and begin the groundwork
to set the stage for major changes in the future.

  • Reorganize
    government central-service functions (personnel, property management,
    IT support, etc.) so agencies can focus more effort on their core
    missions
  • Transfer Department of Licensing fuel tax program to the Department of Revenue
  • Merge Eastern and Western Washington historical societies

Not announced at the press conference is a new statewide
performance review to be done at the direction of the State Auditor.
Demonstrating the importance of this effort, the Governor is allowing
her GMAP director, Larisa Benson, to switch over to the State Auditor's Office to work on the statewide performance review.

The current GMAP effort will be absorbed by the Governor's policy office and overseen by her Policy Director Robin Arnold-Williams.

Though
time will tell what impact this change has on GMAP, we're very happy to
see a statewide performance review finally begin.

It was also great to hear the Governor acknowledge that government reform is a journey, not a one-time effort. 

The News Tribune has additional details on the boards and commissions being eliminated.

Improving Tax Disclosure is the Next Step in the State’s Transparency Reforms

February 7, 2009 in Publications

According to the Washington State Department of Revenue, as of 2008 there were 1,790 taxing districts in the state whose officials impose various taxes on Washingtonians. Unfortunately for taxpayers, there is no single comprehensive resource available to help individuals and businesses learn which taxing districts and rates they are subject to, and how much officials in each taxing district add to their total tax burden.

Resources for Building the State Budget

February 7, 2009 in Publications

The largest and most difficult task facing lawmakers this legislative session is building the state’s 2009-11 operating budget. As of the November revenue forecast, revenues are projected to increase by five percent, $1.4 billion, in the next biennium, but the planned increases built into the existing budget result in a projected $5.7 billion shortfall.

WPC Annual Legislative Briefing Luncheon

February 4, 2009 in Events
Date: 
Wednesday, February 4th, 2009
Time: 
12:00 pm - 1:00 pm
Place: 
Washington State Capitol
Olympia, WA

During this lunch event each center's research director gave an overview of our latest research and analysis on the key issues facing legislators this Session.

Governor launches budget calculator

February 3, 2009 in Blog

Governor Gregoire posted an interactive budget calculator on her website today. From her press release (in-part):

“Closing our state’s multi-billion dollar budget gap required making
many tough decisions,” Gregoire said. “This exercise gives people an
important understanding of the difficult choices our state government
must make when dollars are scarce.”

The interactive tool will allow users to change spending levels in
several policy areas until the budget gap is eliminated. As users click
through the calculator, they’re encouraged to keep an eye on the bottom
line to see how their choices affect the budget.

“With this budget calculator, you may find different priorities among
various programs,” Gregoire said. “Your feedback is important. If you
don’t like a budget decision, I want to know how you will fix it. What
would you sacrifice instead? The budget is a work in progress, and my
proposal is the first step in a long process that will continue in the
Legislature in the coming months.”

After a user has created a balanced budget, the user can submit personal budget ideas to the governor.

Last November WPC encouraged the Governor's office to make available a resource for citizens that would allow them to build their own budget by “purchasing” items from the state's Priorities of Government (POG) list to see the tradeoffs and help focus their budget recommendations to the Governor and legislators.

Although the Governor's calculator does not allow users to make purchases at a detailed level it does provide important information on the types of activities the state is spending money on.

The more budget transparency the better.