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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Overview of House and Senate Democrats’ 2009-11 Budget Proposals

April 2, 2009 in Publications

Each person’s analysis of the 2009-11 state budget offered by House and Senate Democrats will be influenced by his budget principles.

State income tax: deja vu all over again

April 1, 2009 in Blog

State Senator Jeanne Kohl-Welles (D-Seattle) would like to create what she calls a "millionaire's tax" on high-income people living in Washington. This is exactly what happened in 1913 when the federal government created the income tax. The first income tax started at 1% and it applied only to the wealthiest people. Back then supporters of the tax said that most people would never have to pay it. As we know, within a short time paying the federal income tax became an all too common experience for Americans.  Even if Sen. Kohl-Welles' "millionaire's tax" at first applied only to Bill Gates, you can be sure that in no time we would all be paying it.

State Auditor fights performance audit cuts

March 31, 2009 in Blog

State Auditor Brian Sonntag testified today against the Senate's proposed raid of dedicated I-900 performance audit funds. The House budget also raids I-900 funds. From the House budget summary:

Performance Audit Account Program Funding (-$13.5 million General Fund-State; $13.5 million Performance Audits of Government-State)

Funding for JLARC, GMAP, WSIPP, K-12 budget driver audits and conservation district audits is provided from the Performance Audits of Government Account for the 2009-11 biennium rather than with General Fund-State.

Here is a copy of the State Auditor's testimony:

Brian Sonntag
Testimony on Proposed 2009-2011 Budget
Senate Ways and Means Committee
March 31, 2009

Thank you for giving me an opportunity t!
o explain the consequences of this proposed budget on the Office of State Auditor.

Certainly, this budget period is extraordinarily difficult. I respect and value the responsibilities you have and the tough decisions you must make.

I recognize that our Office along with every other state agency must share in the pain of those decisions.     

But the budget you have proposed goes beyond funding reductions or a one-time sweep of our cash balance. To take more than half of the revenue that voters permanently designated for performance audits and use it to fund other programs undercuts the performance audit authority that citizens directly gave to their independent State Auditor.

That change contained in Section 927 of the budget and the precedent it sets is absolutely unacceptable.    

It is unacceptable to me. It is unacceptable to citizens who in such a time as this!
look to us more than ever to ensure that government is accoun!
table and transparent. They recognize this Office is uniquely positioned to be part of the reform the governance change that everybody talks about and wants.      

What particularly disappoints me is that the effects of this budget come at a time when our Office is looked upon to be part of the solution. Every discussion we’ve had with legislative leadership and the Governor centered on how we can help bring about meaningful, cost-saving government reform. 

We’ve already got several performance audits underway with the intent to identify immediate cost savings as well as long-term efficiencies.

We also have launched a statewide performance review, which we were called upon to do by the Governor. It will focus exclusively on state government, its governance structure and back-office functions such as information technology and leasing office space. Many in the Legislature recognize its potential!

Just like successful performance reviews in other states and nationally, we’re going into it with the full intention of finding and recommending significant spending reductions and proposed ways to reshape and recreate what state government does and how state government does it.

We will settle for nothing less than true, meaningful reform.

The time for thinking outside the box is over. There is no box.

I’m disappointed in another respect. This budget does not recognize the value our performance audits have produced so far.

To date, we have completed 15 performance audits of state and local governments that have produced a ratio of 10 dollars saved to one dollar spent. That’s a wise investment.

For state government alone, our audits have recommended nearly $500 million in potential savings.

One audit concluded that four of the largest state agencies could collect $320 million in del!
inquent debt owed to the state simply by following industry best practi!
ces. That’s an additional $320 million that should be in the state’s pocket. 

Our audit of Department of Health transformed how the state licenses and disciplines health care professionals keeping vulnerable patients safe from predatory practitioners. While it did not identify a nickel of specific cost savings, it certainly minimized the risk of potentially costly tort claims against the state.
Let’s be clear, our audits have proven their worth. They have real value, and they are meeting the expectations of citizens. 

We worked diligently and constructively with the Governor to reduce our budget – both in our state financial audit work and in performance audits. The budget proposed by the Governor reflects a reduction of 20 percent in our state appropriation.

I view the diversion of revenue designated for performance audits as nothing short of an assault on what citizens expect the state to do when t!
hey gave us that authority and the funding stream to carry it out.

We need accountability now more than ever and citizens demand and deserve it. We’ve seen the consequences of no oversight and no accountability in our free-falling economy.  State government accountability is what’s at stake and it’s absent in your budget proposal.

Thank you very much.

The Senate Ways and Means Committee members had no questions for the Auditor after his testimony.

What's in the Senate budget?

March 31, 2009 in Blog

A lot of attention is being provided to what isn't in the Senate budget. Since those activities are already receiving scrutiny, what did the Senate decide to include in its spending plan? Here are some examples of those priorities that apparently are recession proof:

  • Asian-Pacific-American Affairs - $315 thousand

  • Commission on Hispanic Affairs - $371 thousand

  • African-American Affairs Commission - $343 thousand

  • Arts Commission - $6.7 million (all funds)

  • State Historical Society - $7.8 million (all funds)

  • East Wash State Historical Society - $6.4 million (all funds)

  • Liquor Control Board - $245 million (all funds)

  • Archaeology & Historic Preservation - $4.7 million (all funds)

  • Convention and Trade Center - $117 million (all funds)

  • Funding is provided to Star USA to assist hosting the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Spokane, scheduled for Jan. 14-24, 2010 - $200 thousand

  • One-time funding is provided for a grant to KCTS Public Television to offer Spanish language programming. The programming will be offered through "V-me", a program service modeled on public television, with children's, arts, history, science, biography, nature, movies, pop culture, and public affairs genres - $40 thousand

  • Funding is provided to implement ESSB 6035 (rating plans). The legislation requires the department to make changes to the retrospective rating program requirements for how sponsoring entities or associations use retrospective rating refunds - $788 thousand (all funds)

  • Higher Education Coordinating Board - $551 million (all funds)

Slow going so far but hope to finish reviewing the Senate budget today and start on the House proposal next.

Budget snapshot

March 30, 2009 in Blog

We'll have more to say about the Legislature's budget proposal after we've had time to read it line-by-line but for now here is a broad overview of the balance sheet.

Near General Fund Spending 2003-05 to 2009-11
*As proposed by Senate
(Dollars in Millions)



% Increase













Change in 2007-09 Near General Fund Spending
(Dollars in Millions)







 Change in 2007-09 to 2009-11 Near General Fund Revenue Forecast
(Dollars in Millions)













Here is the Senate Ways and Means summary of the budget proposal.

Stay tuned for more details and analysis in the coming days.

Overspending Catches up with Lawmakers

in Press releases

Olympia – Washington Policy Center had this to say about the Senate's 2009-11 Budget that was released today: The budget deficit lawmakers face is the result of past spending decisions, not because citizens pay too little in taxes.  During the good times state government became badly overextended, increasing permanent spending by 34% in four years.  Such a high rate of spending increase was simply unsustainable, even before the current economic recession.

Opt-in or Opt-out for state parks?

March 27, 2009 in Blog

Back in 2007, a bill was introduced to require a mandatory $5 fee be added to vehicle registration fees to help support state parks. According to the bill summary for the original version of HB 2275:

The Department of Licensing (DOL) will collect five additional dollars at a motor vehicle's initial registration or renewal. The fee will be deposited into the State Parks Renewal and Stewardship Account to be used for the operation and maintenance of state parks.

When registering a vehicle, the owner may certify that he or she does not intend to use the vehicle to visit state parks. The DOL will not collect a $5 fee from vehicles not intended to be used to visit state parks.

Essentially this means that those paying their vehicle registrations fees would have been permitted to opt-out of paying the $5 park fee if they certif!
ied they didn't plan to visit a state park.

The substitute version of the bill ultimately adopted by the Legislature and signed by the Governor, however, changed the funding scheme to opt-in:

The Department of Licensing (DOL) will provide an opportunity to donate an additional $5 at a vehicle's initial registration or renewal. The fee will be deposited into the State Parks Renewal and Stewardship Account to be used for the operation and maintenance of state parks.

Despite this give and take by lawmakers in 2007 making the $5 park fee affirmative (you must opt-in), some lawmakers are now talking about changing the fee back to permissive (you must opt-out). According to The Olympian:

Flipping the rules on a $5 donation program could keep dozens of state parks open for use over the next two years, b!
ut critics say it's a sneaky way to essentially raise taxe!

Currently, residents can check a box volunteering to pay the fee. A proposal that calls for charging the fee on vehicle tab renewals unless residents check a box allowing them to opt out has met stiff opposition in the Legislature.

But why stop at state parks? Why not opt-out of higher taxes and fees for education and health care?

The answer may rest in the fact that the higher the fees you are asking taxpayers to "opt-out" of the more likely they are to pay attention and do so.

The collective wisdom of the Legislature was correct in 2007 by focusing on an opt-in process after hearing arguments for opt-out and deciding not to pursue that scheme.

As for allowing those who want to send more of their money to Olympia, at least eight states currently have "Tax me More" funds where voluntary opt-in donations can be sent. It looks!
like Virginia's taxpayers have been lining up to take advantage of the opportunity to send the state more money:

The Commonwealth of Virginia wishes to recognize the following individuals and businesses who have made donations to the Commonwealth's General Fund.

    * Delegate Robert B Bell
    * Andrew K. Kohlhepp
    * John E. Meyers
    * D. Nick Rerras
    * George M. and Milena S. VanSant

Private Legislative Session Update Reception with WPC Research Center Directors

March 26, 2009 in Events
Thursday, March 26th, 2009
6:00 pm - 8:00 pm
Bellevue, WA

Washington Policy Center held a private reception with WPC board members and other key supporters on Thursday, March 26th in Bellevue. WPC’s research center directors discussed the issues being debated in Olympia as we entered the homestretch of our state’s Legislative Session. Topics included the state budget shortfall, transportation, small business issues, education and the environment.

Watch the videos:

Introduction by WPC President Dann Mead Smith

Lawmakers want to be able to campaign for tax increases

March 24, 2009 in Blog

At least that's my interpretation of a bill introduced today to change state ethics laws.

Consider HB 2322 - Clarifying that it is "normal and regular conduct" under ethics laws for legislators to discuss ballot measures placed on the ballot by the legislature:

. . . "Normal and regular conduct" for a legislator includes discussing a ballot proposition placed on the ballot by the legislature. Legislators are permitted to discuss such a ballot measure, including its merits and demerits. Legislators may state their position on such a ballot measure, including advocacy expressions of support or opposition. Such discussions are permitted in all manner of communications, whether initiated by the legislator or in response to an inquiry, and including newsletters, letters, press releases, and public meetings undertaken in the conduct!
of the official's office . . .

House holds work session on “good government bills”

March 17, 2009 in Blog

Though too late to act on the proposals this year, the House Ways and Means Committee kicked off Sunshine Week by holding a work session on numerous budget reform bills yesterday. Committee Chair Rep. Kelli Linville described the proposals as "good government bills" when opening the work session.

Among the bills on the agenda were reforms to require:

The members engaged in a healthy conversation on the proposals and indicated that although the bills would not advance this session the reforms proposed would be considered and discussed in the interim to help determine what changes should be made to the state's budget process.

WPC recommended many of these changes last year in our Policy Note "Changing the Budget Status Quo."