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

Searchable stimulus

January 6, 2009 in Blog

Maybe, just maybe, our federal leaders will really embrace transparency this year. There is some positive news coming out of President-elect Obama's recent meeting with congressional leadership. According to ABC News:

Democratic and Republican sources tell ABC News that President-elect
Obama's meeting with the bipartisan congressional leadership of the
House and Senate went well with some quick agreement on the need for
expeditious action as well as oversight and transparency for the
pending, yet-to-be-drafted multibillion dollar stimulus package.

House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, argued that public
dissatisfaction with the Troubled Asset Relief Program money to help
stabilize the nation's financial systems and the way it was rammed
through the Congress demands more transparency and accountability with
the stimulus bill.

"I agree with you," the President-elect said, adding later that he
would "demand complete transparency and accountability in doing it." ·

House Minority Whip Eric Cantor, R-Vir., suggested said the bill
should be put on the Internet a week before Congress votes on it.

Mr. Obama smiled and said something along the lines of, "maybe if I
was better at faking it , I'd say, 'Great idea -- we'll take you up on
that.' But we've actually talked about this idea."

Obama turned it over to incoming White House chief of staff Rahm
Emanuel who essentially said they would do the Republicans one better.
They're planning a Google-like search function to show every program
funded by the stimulus package, whether it comes in under or
over-budget, whether it is meeting its intended purpose, and how many
jobs it is creating.

This is a fantastic idea and should be expanded to the full federal budget. In fact, it's not a bad idea for the state budget either and would be a natural complement to the new state budget website.

Hat tip: Sam Taylor

State parks performance audit

January 5, 2009 in Blog

Against the backdrop of proposed closures to state parks, on December 23 the State Auditor released a performance audit of the Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission.

According to the audit:

The Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission has made extensive efforts to improve the parks system and facilities through its Centennial 2013 plan. The audit found Parks is at risk of failing to achieve all of the goals it communicated to citizens in the Centennial 2013 Plan . . .

1.    The Commission’s strategic plan lacks some key elements that can impact its achievement of its vision and goals.

2.    The Commission needs to make improvements in governance to ensure it meets its vision, goals and objectives.

3.    The Agency does not have a performance management system that
provides reliable information to assess its progress in meeting goals
and that allows it to make budget and operating decisions.

4.    The Agency’s information technology systems do not support efficient operations.

5.    The Agency has not realized the efficiency and economy in its
payroll and human resource processes that they expected to gain from
HRMS.

6.    The Agency’s decentralized approach to governance and lack of
documentation can lead to practices and procedures that do not comply
with state law, agency policy, and do not promote the most efficient
and economical use of state resources.

A public hearing is scheduled on the audit this Wednesday at 1 p.m.

On a positive note the Department of Revenue received its sixteenth-straight clean audit report today. Here is an excerpt from DOR's press release:

The annual audit issued today by State Auditor Brian Sonntag contained no findings, or problems with how the Department processed $18.2 billion in tax revenue annually, including 96 percent of all state general fund tax collections and all local sales taxes.

“This outstanding record is indicative of management’s interest in compliance with the laws and regulations applicable to your agency,” Sonntag wrote in his cover letter to the audit.  “It’s important to give special recognition to agencies that consistently exhibit a commitment to solid accounting practices and systems of internal control.”

Sonntag said he appreciated the cooperation and assistance provided by Revenue staff!
as his auditors examined the agency’s extensive operations.

Local mayors' appetite for pork

December 18, 2008 in Blog

Earlier, I wrote about how cities across the country have compiled a list of infrastructure projects that should be funded by the federal government.

Now, according to the National Taxpayers Union, and this article from CNN, some of the mayors' requests could be considered "pork," including a polar bear exhibit, a water park ride and an aquatic center.

This got me thinking about what our local mayors requested. Sure enough, here are some of the questionable spending requests:

  • Stadium improvements at Auburn Memorial Stadium: $1,600,000
  • Rerouting a creek in Bremerton: $6,000,000
  • Habitat for Humanity housing in Everett: $300,000
  • Major home repairs in Lakewood: $150,000
  • Qwest Field improvements: $7,000,000
  • Nutrition Program space rehabilitation in Seattle: $316,000

In January, WPC released the Washington State Piglet Book, which highlighted the problem with pork spending at the state level.

NY's budget woes

December 18, 2008 in Blog

Just ahead of the Governor's release of her proposed budget later this morning comes news out of New York that might provide ideas on what not to do. Granted, Governor Gregoire's budget has been written for some time but as legislators wrangle over the details in the coming session they have the opportunity to avoid expanding the reach of government.

The state of New York is facing a $15.4 billion budget shortfall and Governor David Paterson is proposing billions in new state taxes to help make up the gap. His office released its 2009-2010 Executive Budget yesterday and with it came 137 new or increased taxes and fees. Some of them are making national headlines:

  • Extend sales tax to cable and satellite television and radio
  • Repeal the sales tax cap on motor fuel
  • Increase the tax on flavored malt beverages
  • Tax coupons: Impose sales tax on the amount paid by the customer plus the amount of the coupon rather than on the net discounted price
  • Impose state and local sales tax on purchases of prewritten software, digital audio, audio-visual and text files, digital photography, games  and others. [this is being called the iTunes Tax]
  • Increase motor vehicle registration fees by 25 percent
  • Reissue license plates in the next 2 years and increase the associated fees by 67%
  • Increase the bi-annual physician registration fee by 67%
  • Impose a tax-preparer tax, all persons compensated for the preparation of 10 tax returns or more must now pay $100

Again, as is the case in Washington, the New York legislature will iron out the details so not all of these are set in stone. But now that these new or increased taxes and fees are already in the proposed budget, the burden will fall on policymakers to prove that the new taxes should not be passed, rather than justifying that the taxes should be enacted.

During this last election, Governor Gregoire promised to not raise taxes to solve Washington's budget deficit. Perhaps New York and it's new or expanded 154 taxes could be used as a cautionary tale: "Taxes Gone Wild!"

The full list can be seen on the New York State's website.

 

President-Elect Obama Should Bring Government Transparency Into The 21st Century

December 17, 2008 in Publications

Do we want a government that is open and accountable? The obvious answer is yes. Unfortunately, roughly three-quarters of Americans believe the federal government is secretive and increasing in its secrecy. Independent observers agree that we are rapidly shifting from a society based on the public’s right to know to one premised on the need to know, where the government determines the need. This represents a fundamental shift in democratic precepts, which the new president must fix immediately.

Your budget recommendations

December 15, 2008 in Blog

The Governor asked and you answered.

I've spent the last few hours reviewing the volumes of budget recommendations provided to the Governor in response to her request for suggestions. So what have you been saying? Here is a sampling:

  • Don’t ask for federal bailout money.
  • Cut salaries versus layoffs.
  • Get the state out of the liquor business.
  • Increase state employee health care cost sharing.
  • Promote more telecommuting and more teleconferencing.
  • Merge state agencies with similar responsibilities (L&I/ESD).
  • Eliminate prevailing wage.
  • Consolidate state offices to save on rent.
  • Simplify and streamline all processes, such as contracting. Make things easier to accomplish, not more difficult.
  • Eliminate all state travel except field and work with the public.
  • Re-negotiate the union contract and eliminate pay raises for all employees – managers, elected officials, everyone for the next 4 years.

Here are additional recommendations and WPC's suggestions.

Many thanks to the Governor's office for responding so quickly to my records request and providing this information.

Deficit not that bad . . .

December 15, 2008 in Blog

. . . so says Speaker of the House Frank Chopp. According to the Tri-City Herald:

House Speaker Frank Chopp said Washington's projected deficit may not be as bad as it looks.

Chopp,
a Seattle Democrat, was in the Tri-Cities on Friday for a forum with
the Columbia Basin Badger Club, a local group that grills politicians
and newsmakers on political issues without taking sides.

Several
club members from the audience of about 75 asked Chopp about the state
budget, which officials estimated in November would face a $5.1 billion
shortfall in the upcoming biennium.

But Chopp said
the doom-and-gloom prophecies include estimates for $1 billion in
spending on new programs, which seems unlikely given the current
revenue picture.

"In fact, we won't do that now," he said.

Some programs -- like the idea of offering all-day kindergarten -- will have to wait until the economy turns around, he said.

Chopp
identified several ways he expects the Legislature will look at
slashing spending so it doesn't have to borrow money to balance the
budget.

Among those were cutting programs added to the budget in
recent years that aren't working, like a job search program through the
Employment Security Department that has only a 5 percent success rate.

"We're going to wipe that out," Chopp said.

Kudos to the Speaker for putting the budget discussion into context. It is also important to remember that state revenues are projected to be $855 million higher in the current budget than the last and $1.4 billion higher for the next budget.

General Fund State Revenue Growth
(Dollars in Millions)

Budget

Revenue

$ Increase

% Increase

1991-93

$14,862.2

-

-

1993-95

$16,564.6

$1,702.4

11.5%

1995-97

$17,637.7

$1,073.1

6.5%

1997-99

$19,620.1

$1,982.4

11.2%

1999-01

$21,262.1

$1,642.0

8.4%

2001-03

$21,140.7

<$121.4>

<0.6%>

2003-05

$23,388.5

$2,247.8

10.6%

2005-07

$27,772.0

$4,383.5

18.7%

2007-09

$28,626.6

$854.6

3%

2009-11

$30,070.4

$1,443.8

5%


Source: Washington State Economic and Revenue Forecast Council

It will be very interesting to see what the Governor proposes this Thursday when she releases her budget. Last week WPC sent the Governor our suggestions for budget reform. Here is an excerpt from our letter:

Washington Policy Center would like to offer its assistance in light of the state’s budget outlook. We appreciate your commitment to balance the 2007-09 and 2009-11 budgets without raising new taxes and fees. We share your belief that this is a unique opportunity to rethink what the government does and how it delivers vital services to the public.

Our organization stands ready to help in any way that you find useful to bring about the fundamental budget ref!
orms in which you have expressed interest . . .

To offer constructive suggestions, we have enclosed our “Do not buy list,” which we adapted from your 2009-11 Priorities of Government report, as well as a list of eight reforms that we believe will help put the state on the path toward a sustainable performance-based budget.

To read the full letter click here.

Review of state's 470 boards and commissions

December 10, 2008 in Blog

I'm a little late on this post but last week the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Committee (JLARC) released a pre-audit report reviewing the state's 470 boards and commissions. According to the report: "At the beginning of this project, no single list identified all of Washington’s boards and commissions."

Thanks to the work of JLARC, there is now a good description of each board and commission starting on page 25 of the report. Included are details on when it was created, authorizing statute, costs, and number of meetings.

Another nugget from the report is Appendix 2 - Statute Summary: 

The Legislature has declared that boards and commissions have been:
• Created in excessive numbers;

• Created without legislative review or input and without a!
n assessment of whether there is a resulting duplication of purpose or process;

• Duplicating duties of existing governmental entities, creating additional expense, and obscuring responsibility; and

• Difficult to control in terms of growth because of the many special interests involved.

Accordingly, the Legislature established a process found in Chapter 43.41 RCW to eliminate redundant and obsolete boards and commissions and to restrict the establishment of new boards and commissions (RCW 43.41.220).

The Legislature also finds that the “continued proliferation of both statutory and non-statutory groups of this nature without effective, periodic review of existing groups can result in wasteful duplication of effort, fragmentation of administrative authority, lack of accountability, plus an excessive and frequently hidden financial burden on the state.” (RCW 43.88.500)

Furthermore, the Legislature finds t!
hat a lack of current and reliable information about boards an!
d commissions hinders the effectiveness of legislative oversight and review these entities. Therefore, the Legislature has created a central clearinghouse in the Office of Financial Management (RCW 43.88.500).

It looks like the need for each of the state's 470 boards and commissions should also be part of the current budget savings debate.

State searchable budget website live @ noon tomorrow

December 2, 2008 in Blog

The new searchable budget website authorized by SB 6818
(Promoting transparency in state expenditures) will be launched tomorrow by the Legislative Evaluation and Accountability Program
Committee (LEAP) and the Office of Financial Management (OFM). SB 6818
was based on Washington Policy Center’s (WPC) recommendation for the
state to adopt a searchable budget website. It passed the legislature
unanimously in 2008.

The website is Fiscal.wa.gov (will be live at noon on 12/3).

The
searchable budget website provides an unprecedented level of
interactivity allowing users to create their own budget reports to
compare state spending over time.

This website is a great resource for citizens regardless of the level of their budget expertise. From the green eyeshade policy analyst to the casual observer, users
can create a customized look at how our tax dollars are being spent.

Included on the website are details on:

  • state expenditures by fund or account
  • expenditures by agency, program, and subprogram
  • state revenues by source
  • state expenditures by budget object and subobject
  • state agency workloads, caseloads, and performance measurements.

The
budget website also links to performance information on the Government
Management Accountability and Performance (GMAP) website and OFM’s
website on personal services’ contracts.

To help build on
the success of Fiscal.wa.gov, WPC sent letters to GMAP and OFM
encouraging these agencies to enhance their websites to mirror the
functionality of the new budget website. This effort could also serve
as a template for creation of a tax transparency website. Earlier this
year WPC released a proposal for a ‘Taxation Disclosure Act’ similar to
SB 6818.  

We are hopeful that state officials will
build on the success of the new budget website and also make details on
taxation more transparent to help citizens learn more about what
government decisions mean to their pocketbooks.

If
adopted by state officials, the tax transparency proposal would set up
an online database where users could find their state and local tax
rates (such as property and sales taxes) by entering their zip code,
street address, or by clicking on a map showing individual taxing
district boundaries. An online calculator would let citizens determine
their total tax burden and which officials are responsible for which
parts of it.

Additional Information
Governor signs Washington Policy Center proposal for searchable budget website
Taxation Disclosure Act
GMAP website letter
OFM website letter

Changing the Budget Status Quo

December 2, 2008 in Publications

When lawmakers come to Olympia in January they will be tasked with solving a projected $5 billion budget deficit. Thankfully there are several common sense reforms that policymakers can adopt to change the budget status quo and help put the state on the path toward sustainable budgeting. Adopting these reforms will help promote efficiency, improve the quality of services to the public and resolve the constant sense of crisis that pervades the state’s public finances.