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

Spokane's Community Bill of Rights Seeks To Grow City Government

October 17, 2009 in Publications

This op-ed appeared in the Spokane Journal of Business.

Next month the voters of Spokane will decide whether their city government’s powers should grow drastically in scope and size while relying on lawsuits to iron out the details.

GAO: Nation's long-term fiscal outlook remains unsustainable

October 15, 2009 in Blog

The U.S. Government Accountability Office today released its Fall update on The Federal Government's Long-Term Fiscal Outlook. The prognosis is grim unless our elected officials in D.C. take action soon. From the report:

Weaknesses in the economy and financial markets—and the government’s response to them—have contributed to near-term increases in federal deficits, which reached a record level in fiscal year 2009. While a lot of attention has been given to the recent fiscal deterioration, the federal government faces even larger fiscal challenges that will persist long after the return of financial stability and economic growth. GAO’s simulations continue to show escalating levels of debt that illustrate that the long-term fiscal outlook remains unsustainable. In little over 10 years, debt held by the public as a percent of GDP un!
der our Alternative simulation is projected to exceed the historical high reached in the aftermath of World War II and grow at a steady rate thereafter . . .

Another way to measure the long-term fiscal challenge is the fiscal gap. The fiscal gap is the size of action needed—in terms of tax increases, spending reductions, or some combination of the two—for debt as a share of GDP to equal today’s ratio at the end of a certain period, such as 75 years. For example, under our Alternative simulation, the fiscal gap is 8.5 percent of GDP (or more than $62 trillion in present value dollars). This means that revenue would have to increase by about 47 percent or noninterest spending would have to be reduced by 33 percent on average over the next 75 years to keep debt at the end of the period from exceeding its level at the beginning of 2009 (40.8 percent of GDP).

Policymakers could phase in the policy changes so that the tax increases or spending cuts wou!
ld grow over time and allow people to adjust. However, the lon!
ger action to deal with the nation’s long-term fiscal outlook is delayed, the greater the risk that the eventual changes will be disruptive and destabilizing. Under our Alternative simulation, waiting even 10 years would require a revenue increase of about 58 percent, a noninterest spending cut of about 39 percent, or some combination of the two.

Perhaps it is time to bring back consideration of a federal balanced budget amendment to the Constitution.

9th Circuit Court of Appeals orders release of R-71 petitions

October 15, 2009 in Blog

The Ninth Circuit Federal Appeals Court has ruled for Secretary of State Sam Reed in the dispute whether or not to release the R-71 petitions in response to a public records request. Here is the Court's order

The court, after consideration of the record and briefs of the parties, and oral argument, has determined that the district court’s Order Granting Plaintiffs’ Motion for Preliminary Injunction (the “Preliminary Injunction Order”), filed September 10, 2009, relies on an incorrect legal standard and, therefore, must be reversed.

It is therefore ordered:

1. Appellants’ motion for a stay pending ap!
peal is granted and the Preliminary Injunction Order is hereby stayed, effective immediately, pending final resolution of these appeals.

2. An opinion setting forth the reasons for the court’s reversal of the Preliminary Injunction Order shall be issued expeditiously and in due course.

This decision should mean there will be quick resolution to yesterday's ruling in Thurston County Superior Court granting a temporary restraining order against Sam Reed concerning compliance with a public records request for copies of past initiative petitions.

Supreme Court rules judiciary not subject to public records act

October 15, 2009 in Blog

In a 7-2 ruling this morning (includes one concurring opinion), the state Supreme Court declared that judicial records are not subject to disclosure under the public records act. Writing for the majority, Justice Susan Owens said:

This court previously held that the PRA does not apply to the judiciary and the legislature acquiesced to that decision by not modifying the PRA. We see no reason to violate the doctrine of stare decisis here. The trial court correctly held that the PRA does not require the City to release the judicial records requested by Koenig, and we affirm.

Chief Justice Gerry Alexander and Justice Debra Stephens dissented saying:

="blockquote" style="margin-left: 40px;">In the end, I believe we do a disservice to interpret the PRA, a broad mandate for open government, to exempt entirely the judicial branch of government. Nast is not stare decisis on this question, and courts plainly meet the statutory definition of “agency” in RCW 42.56.010. It seems to me the PRA speaks for itself:
The people of this state do not yield their sovereignty to the agencies that serve them. The people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know. The people insist on remaining informed so that they may maintain control over the instruments that they have created. This chapter shall be liberally construed and its exemptions narrowly construed to promote this public policy and to assure that the public interest will be fully protected. In the event o!
f conflict between the provisions of this chapter and any othe!
r act, the provisions of this chapter shall govern.

Based on today's decision it is now up to the Legislature to overturn this court carved exemption from open government and amend the law to explicitly say the third branch of government (judiciary) is subject to the same disclosure requirements as the other two (executive and legislative).

Sunshine Committee recommends sunset review for new records exemptions

October 13, 2009 in Blog

The state Sunshine Committee this morning unanimously adopted a recommendation that any new exemptions from public disclosure undergo a sunset review. Here is the recommendation as adopted by the Committee:

The Committee makes the following recommendations for new legislation:
1. The Legislature incorporate all existing and further exemptions into the Public Records Act by express reference.

2. The Legislature limit all future exemptions to a term of five years and be that such exemptions be examined by JLARC (Joint Legislative Audit Review Committee), the Sunshine Committee, or other competent body, a year prior to their expiration on a case by case basis to determine if they merit reauthorization or should be eliminated or revised.

The recommend!
ation adopted was an amended version of this proposal first introduced on May 12:

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.

The Committee also discussed the other recommendations from its draft report to the Legislature. Those recommendations concern:

Here is the full agenda for today's Sunshine Committee meeting.

Real Cost of Baucus Bill - $2 Trillion

October 9, 2009 in Blog

The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) scored the Senate Financial Committee health care reform bill this week. Never mind the fact the bill is only a summary and is not in legislative language, which made the CBO disclaim the cost of an actual final bill.

Total cost is reported at $829 billion with $81 billion in savings over the first ten years. Unfortunately, as published in a Micheal Cannon report for CATO, the cost would be closer to $2 trillion over the first ten years. So why the difference?

First, the CBO omitted $75 billion in new federal spending and $33 billion in unfunded mandates on state governments. Second, the nonpartisan CBO assumed Congress would allow the "sustainable growth rate" cuts in Medicare provider reimbursement starting in 2012. Congress has never let this happen. And finally, the CBO omitted the cost of the individual and employer mandates which represent 60% of the cost of Massachusetts' health care reform.

Therefore, to do the math: $829b + $75b + $33b = $937 billion (which is 40% of some number).

40% x N = $937 billion    N = $937 billion divided by 0.4 = $2.34 trillion.

So the Baucus bill is not budget neutral, let alone a deficit reducer. Instead, it is a colossal budget breaker that has the potential of bankrupting this country in just the first decade of application.

Treasurer worries about state's credit rating

October 8, 2009 in Blog

Earlier this year State Treasurer James McIntire highlighted the state's strong credit ratings. Now, however, he is worried the state may have to pay millions more to borrow money. According to the Seattle PI:

Tim Eyman's initiative that would limit government spending could hurt Washington's credit rating, which would cost the state tens of millions of dollars, state Treasurer James McIntire says . . . McIntire said credit ratings consider numerous factors, including initiatives like Eyman's.

"They want to know how your economy is doing, they want to how your revenues are doing, they want to know what your balance sheet looks like...and they ask about things like initiatives," he said in an interview. "Any!
thing that restricts taxes or spending, that's going to have a long-term structural impact to come to resolution about financial management, is something that they worry about."

Credit raters like Moody's say "Voter initiative activity adds element of fiscal uncertainty,” and is a challenge for the state, but the adoption of a tax or spending restriction did not make Moody's list of things that would reduce the state's credit rating. According to Moody's July 10 report on Washington's credit outlook:

What would change the rating - UP
  • Sustained trend of structural budget balance, plus restoration and maintenance of strong reserve levels.
  • Economic expansion and improved industry diversification.
  • Reduction of debt ratios to levels closer to Moody's 50-state medians.

What could change the rating - DOWN

  • Deeper and longer recession that restrains consumer confidence, leading to prolonged revenue weakness and employment erosion.
  • Protracted structural budget imbalance.
  • Increased reliance on one-time budget solutions.
  • Cash flow narrowing, leading to strained liquidity.
  • Failure to adopt plan to cover expenditures once federal fiscal stimulus monies are no longer available.

Perhaps the reason adoption of a tax or spending restriction didn't make the list is the fact Washington already has both. In fact, the state's credit rating didn't drop after passage of I-601 (tax and spending restriction) in 1993 or I-960 (tax restriction) in 2007.

Based on the criteria described by Moody's, it looks like the biggest devil for the state’s credit rating will be whether or not the state lays out a plan for balancing the budget once the federal bailout funds are gone and stops resorting to one-time fixes. 

Additional Information
Summary of state's credit history (provided by Office of State Treasurer)

State Auditor & Attorney General: We need a better way to enforce open government laws

October 5, 2009 in Blog

The Open Government Task Force created by State Auditor Brian Sonntag and Attorney General Rob McKenna met this morning to discuss alternative ways to enforce the state's open government laws. Currently the only option available to citizens is to file a lawsuit if they disagree with an agency's opinion on whether a record should be disclosed.

Opening the meeting State Auditor Brian Sonntag noted there has to be a better way for citizens to access government records without having to resort to lawsuits. Attorney General Rob McKenna agreed highlighting the fact that every other area of law has an administrative mechanism for addressing concerns. The reason is administrative mechanisms are faster and more cost effective than relying solely on court relief. Unfortunately, Washington lacks this type of recourse!
for enforcement of the state’s open government laws.

The Task Force's heavy hitters (including House Majority Leader Lynn Kessler, Rep. Chris Hurst, Rep. Joel Kretz, and Sen. Bob Morton) heard a presentation from Terry Mutchler, Executive Director of Pennsylvania's Office of Open Records. Mutchler described how Pennsylvania's administrative process works for citizens and agencies to resolve public records dispute.

The administrative review processes in other states was also discussed at the meeting. Working with the Attorney General's Office I reviewed the public records laws in the states with administrative options for citizens and created this handout for the Task Force.

!
Here is a sampling of how enforcement of open government laws !
works in those states:

  • Kentucky - Attorney General review of records dispute and subsequent opinion has the full force and effect of law.
  • Nebraska - If an agency ignores the opinion of the Attorney General that a record should be disclosed, the Attorney General must sue the agency on behalf of the citizen if requested.
  • New Jersey - Government Records Council offers mediation services to resolve records disputes.
  • North Dakota - If an agency ignores the opinion of the Attorney General that a record should be disclosed, the agency or public official is personally liable.

Next up for the Open Government Task Force is working on a draft report laying out its recommendations for the Legislature to consider next session.

Governor wants agencies to focus on core missions

October 2, 2009 in Blog

The House State Government committee held a work session today focused on how to improve agency efficiency. Rep. Sam Hunt, Chair of the committee, opened the meeting by asking, "What do we do to make government more efficient?"

One of the solutions provided by the Governor's Office is for agencies to spend more time on their core missions versus "back office" activities. Here is the info from one of the Governor's handouts:

Governor Gregoire wants state government to meet the demands of the 21st century economy. One key to success is for state agencies to focus on their core missions.
  • Reduce the size of government
  • Provide 21st century customer service
  • Streamline agencies and operations to get best value for cost

The goal is to better serve the public with a more nimble and efficient government. The public will continue to receive service from the experts in the field, and departments will receive the same: business services from the agency expert in the field. It’s the old example: why should the head of DSHS have to be a real estate guru as well as a social services expert?

We will align our systems to achieve economies of scale and improve efficiency across the spectrum of government.

This is a matter of aligning programs and positions, not judging the people in them. The driving force behind this is maximizing limited resources. The work people in central service fields do is valuable and needed. State agencies must have email to function. The question is whether an agency should be running its own email system when taxpayers are also funding a Department of Information Services.

We know it will be hard. Change when resources are scarce is diffi!
cult. We know savings may not be instant, and the steps have to be incremental. But difficulty is not an excuse for the status quo. Constant improvement is a hallmark of successful organizations.

We are committed to it. The governor has made this a priority, and so has the cabinet. We’re accepting the challenge and expect to meet it.

Also discussed was the joint effort between the State Auditor and the Governor to review ways to improve agency efficiency.

Here are additional details on the State Auditor's effort and the Governor!
9;s reform goals

DOR: Three Million State Residents May Have Unclaimed Property

October 2, 2009 in Blog

In need of extra cash? The state is holding $700 million in unclaimed property - some of which may be yours. According to the Department of Revenue:

Three million current or former Washington residents have a stake in $700 million in unclaimed property being held by the Washington State Department of Revenue. You may be one of them.

Their names are listed in the Department’s searchable online database, http://claimyourcash.org, as having unclaimed property turned over to the state by businesses, generally after they have had no contact with the holder for three years.

Unclaimed property includes items such as uncashed paychecks, rent and utility deposits, refunds, escrow funds, dormant bank accounts, stocks and bonds and even the contents of safe deposit boxes.

The Department mails claim forms to the last-known addresses of potential claimants after they receive the property, but oft!
en the individuals have moved and no forwarding address is available.

During Fiscal Year 2009, the Department returned $45 million to 88,000 claimants, yet the number of people with potential claims continues to grow.

Revenue Director Cindi Holmstrom said the odds of someone finding unclaimed property have grown steadily over the years, are now literally 50-50, as the Department continues its efforts to educate businesses on the legal requirements to turn over unclaimed property.

“We’ve made it as easy and simple as possible for people to search for and claim their property,” Holmstrom said. “Our goal is to return as much of this property as possible to the rightful owners.”

Click here to see if the state is holding your unclaimed property.