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

Analysis of SB 5945: Creating a Washington Health Partnership Plan

March 7, 2009 in Publications

SB 5945 would create a Washington Health Partnership plan intended to provide comprehensive coverage to all residents of the state. However, the plan proposed in this bill is not the same as the one outlined in SB 6333 from 2008. The current bill calls for a further study group to select “a health care reform proposal to be considered for legislative action.”

The Effect of Tax Preferences on B&O Taxes Paid by Washington Businesses

March 7, 2009 in Publications

In late January the Senate Ways and Means Committee and House Finance Committee held a joint hearing to receive testimony from JLARC staff and Commission members on the Citizen Commission for Performance Measurement of Tax Preferences’ latest report.

Expanded “Family Security Act” Will Expand Government Benefits and Raise Payroll Taxes

March 7, 2009 in Publications

Legislators are proposing to expand and fund the Paid Family Leave Act, which was passed into law in 2007. As originally passed, the program would send qualified recipients a check for $250 per week for up to five weeks—$1,250 total. Beneficiaries of the new entitlement would be eligible if their family had recently given birth to, or adopted, a baby.

Is billion the new million?

March 6, 2009 in Blog

IRSEvery year leading up to tax-time you hear of the shocking facts and figures that comes from complying with the United States' tax code. Steve Forbes, of the eponymous Forbes Magazine, issued a column last week that had some of the new, and not-so-shocking-anymore numbers. These are based on the Taxpayer Advocate Service's annual report

Some of the more interesting finds:
  • Individuals and businesses spend 7.6 billion hours a year filling out tax forms for the IRS. Those 7.6 billion hours consume the equivalent of 3.8 million full-time workers.    
  • The cost of complying with the code comes to $193 billion. Other experts think that assessment is too low and have come up with estimates approaching $300 billion.  
  • The number of words in the code has grown by 2.3 million since 2001. In 2008 there were more than 500 changes to the tax code. Other surveys have found that the code has been amended some 14,000 times since the mid-1980s. 
The Taxpayer Advocate Service's number one recommendation? "The most serious problem facing taxpayers is the complexity of the Internal Revenue Code. The only meaningful way to reduce these burdens [of compliance] is to simplify the tax code enormously."

Oh for the good old days when people and businesses only spend hundreds of millions of hours and hundreds of millions of dollars to comply with the tax code.

Just think if even half of the $300 billion in compliance costs and half of the 3.8 million workers could be redirected to better uses in the private marketplace? Talk about an instant stimulus package...

Court dismisses lawsuit to remove 2/3 tax protections

March 5, 2009 in Blog

The State Supreme Court today dismissed Senator Lisa Brown's lawsuit to invalidate the requirement that tax increases receive 2/3 legislative approval. The dismissal came on procedural grounds.

The Court concluded:

This original action is improperly before this court on application for a writ of mandamus and is a nonjusticiable political question. Intervention of this court into an intrahouse dispute over a parliamentary ruling to compel the president of the senate to perform a discretionary duty would be a grave violation of separation of powers. We dismiss the action.

Looks like I should have made a bet on this outcome since it is exactly what I predicted after the oral arguments last September.

In light of today's ruling, the clearest way to resolve this issue once and for all is for the Legislature to put on the ballot a constitutional amendment and allow the voters to decide.

Tax records should be released immediately

March 4, 2009 in Blog

Last week we highlighted a bill to improve tax transparency. Now it appears there is a more immediate example of the need for transparency regarding potential tax increases.

Some lawmakers continue to claim that tax increases are needed to balance the budget despite voters' misgivings. It appears, however, they don't want you to know what taxes they are considering or even for you to be part of the conversation until they have focused-grouped their tax proposal.

This lack of transparency has caught the ire of several capitol reporters (here, here, and here). This type of behavior by our elected officials should be an affront to all supporters of open government and the state's public records law.

Writing for Crosscut, Austin Jenkins describes the problem:

What tax hike proposals are Washington lawmakers running the numbers on? Good question. Wish I could tell you.

Several weeks back I filed a public disclosure request with the Washington Department of Revenue. I asked for information on any tax increase proposals the Department has analyzed for members of the Legislature and the Governor since Janu!
ary 1st. It took awhile, but I finally got the information on !
communications with the Governor’s office. There were some emails about tax breaks, but not tax hikes. Not surprising since Governor Chris Gregoire has been beating the no-new-taxes drum since before the November election.

But getting information on what tax proposals lawmakers are cooking up is proving much more difficult. I keep getting apologetic emails from the very nice public disclosure designee at Revenue saying it will take a bit longer to fulfill my request.

The latest email confirmed what I suspected. The email reads in part: “…more time will be needed to finish our response to your public records request. The remaining records consist of communications between the Department of Revenue and the State Legislature. The Department and the Legislature are currently evaluating whether any exemptions or privileges apply to the documents that are responsive to your request.”

Translation: The Legislature maintains it can invoke !
“legislative privilege” when it doesn’t want to make public certain documents. This includes emails. It also apparently includes when lawmakers ask a taxpayer funded state agency to analyze a potential piece of legislation.

While "legislative privilege" in general is suspect, there is no such blanket "privilege" for records maintained by a non-legislative body such as the Department of Revenue (DOR). Unless an explicit exemption from the public records law can be cited, those records must be immediately disclosed.

Lawmakers can speed up this needed transparency by immediately allowing the release of the requested records and help bring citizens into the tax debate sooner rather than later.

"Evergreen Aids Right-wing in Attack on Labor Center"

March 3, 2009 in Blog

So reads the subject line of an email from the Director of Evergreen State College's Labor Center in response to an internal audit by the school's auditor.

Not generally thinking of Evergreen State College as a bastion of conservative thought, I was intrigued by what type of audit findings could so infuriate the school's Labor Center director.

Yesterday I received a copy of the internal audit in response to a public records request. The Labor Center was found guilty of 10 violations. One of the more interesting findings had to do with state ethic laws and whether or not the mission of the Labor Center is illegal.

From the audit:

A review of the Center’s website, newsletters, mission statemen!
t, and other similar documents found numerous instances of activity that has the appearance of violating the State Ethics in Service Act and cannot be tied to the Center’s mission. The activities noted include work with and the appearance of support for special interest groups, training and classes pertaining to resisting work of federal agencies, possible political activity as part of a conference, and payment of dues to special interest groups for membership . . .

A review of the Center’s mission statement and by-laws found that the revised documents currently used by the Center have not been reviewed and approved by Senior Management, the College’s legal counsel, or the Board of Trustees.  This created a lack of clarity of the activities and work allowed for the Center and boundaries for staff.  The Center’s mission creates close and strong ties with labor unions and in several instances, the members of the Center’s advisory board reques!
t and report on work to be done or which has been performed fo!
r labor unions.  A lack of a clear and approved mission and ambiguity related to the College’s relationship with these organizations provides the appearance of possible ethics issues.  Other possible ethics violations included:

  • The website provided readers with two petitions:  one asking U.S. Congress and the President to declare the birthday of Cesar Chavez a national holiday and another asking reader to stop patronizing Burger King.  RCW 42.52.180 specifically prohibits use of State resources for political purposes.
  •  In one instance, the website announces collections for an outside organization during a Center sponsored activity.  An announcement for a Farm worker’s Justice includes a wish list for Bellingham Cooperative and states donations for the cooperative will be collected as part of the event.  Collection during a campus event and announcement of this item on the Center’s website is a violation of the State Ethics Law prohibiting use of resources for an outside organization (RCW 42.52.160)
  • Both Center newsletters available on the College’s websites and minutes of the advisory board include numerous references to efforts to oppose federal agencies, a rally held as part of a Center managed workshop, political work of the union in several industries, and the Center’s partnerships with special interest groups, all of which provide the appearance of potential violations of RCW 42.52.180 prohibiting use of State resources for political purposes.
  • A review of the minutes for the advisory board meetings found several discussions about support of special interest groups.  In the October 29, 2006, minutes, a member suggests participation with an organization called “U.S. Labor Against the War”.  The committee agreed to advise the center to join the group and directed the Center’s Assistant Director to make a membership payment to the group in possible violation of the Ethics in Public Service Act. 

In this climate of renewed interest in scrubbing the activities of our state's higher education institutions for budget savings, lawmakers may want to consider the findings of this audit for examples of types of programs for elimination.

Procurement Policies and the Differences among Open Source Software, Open Standards, and Open Government

March 2, 2009 in Publications

Most computer software is sold like any other commercial product and is protected by U.S. intellectual property laws (primarily copyright and patent protection). Such software products are sold under defined legal controls. Customers, without prior permission or a license agreement, cannot see or change the software program’s basic source code.

Tax transparency bill introduced

February 26, 2009 in Blog

According to the Washington State Department of Revenue (DOR), 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.

More on economists’ urges

February 24, 2009 in Blog

I’ve been schmudgeted.  An author at the schmudget blog takes deep umbrage at my contention (as well as my math) about whether all 28 signers of a recent Washington State Budget and Policy Center letter are economists.

He says I’m “off-base” when I say that 39.2857% of the people who signed the letter calling for a tax increase - “Economists Urge Lawmakers to Consider All Options in Addressing State Deficit” - are not economists.

Some of the signers are highly respected, indeed at the top, in their academic fields, but I think it is legitimate to question whether they can be described accurately as “economists.”  It all depends on what being an “economist” means.

Schmudget objects I didn’t name names.  I didn’t list names in order to keep things from becoming personal, but since he asks, consider the following:

    Melissa Ahern is Associate Professor at the Department of Health Policy and Administration at WSU.  Is she an economist?  (Schmudget says yes).

  • Denny Brewster is a respected historian at the U.W.   Is he an economist?

  • Hubert Locke is a respected historian and Dean Emeritus of Public Affairs at the Evans School at the U.W.,  Is he an economist?
  • James Gregory is a Professor of History at the Center for Labor Studies at the U.W.  Is he an economist?

  • Jeff Chapman is Research Director at the Budget and Policy Center.  Is he an economist?

  • Marieka Klawitter is an Associate Professor of Public Affairs at the Evans School of Public Affairs at the U.W.  Is she an economist?

  • Margaret Levi is a professor of International Studies in the Political Science Department at the U.W.  Is she an economist?

  • Robert Plotnick is a Professor of Public Affairs at the Evans School of Public Affairs at the U.W.  Is he an economist?

  • Hector Saez is a Value-Added Research Associate at the Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources at WSU.  Is he an economist?

  • Kathleen Painter is a Sustainable Systems Analyst at the Research and Extension Center at WSU.  Is she an economist?

  • Jennifer Romich is an Assistant Professor at the School of Social Work at the U.W.  Is she an economist?

Most people think of an economist as a professional who spends his day studying the economy.  Maybe some people on this list fit that description, or at least the letter’s sponsor think they do based on college degrees, but I think reasonable people can question whether these 28 letter signers can all fairly be described as “economists.”

I have a graduate degree from the London School of Economics.  Am I an economist?  Who knows.  But then I’m not being represented as one in an effort to get the legislature to pass a tax increase.