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

Building a balanced budget

February 2, 2009 in Blog

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.

Requiring a balanced budget

January 27, 2009 in Blog

Last year the Seattle Times highlighted the fact that contrary to popular belief the state does not have a real balanced budget requirement. Although the state budget and accounting act (RCW 43.88) requires the Governor to submit a balanced budget to the Legislature, lawmakers are not required to adopt one.

A bill introduced today would change that. HB 1655 - Requiring a balanced legislative budget:

The legislature may not appropriate an amount from any account for any fiscal period that is in excess of the estimated amount of revenues and resources to that account for that fiscal period as of the date the budget is adopted.

Simple enough. Don't budget to spend more m!
oney than you expect to receive.

Look before you spend

January 21, 2009 in Blog

The saying "look before you leap" is very applicable to the legislature when it comes to considering potentially expensive programs. Unfortunately, lawmakers are often left in the poor position of voting on bills before knowing what impact their decision will have on taxpayer's wallets.

Based on a proposal introduced today, it appears a bipartisan group of Representatives are tired of playing this type of spending by Russian Roulette. Consider HB 1458 - Addressing fiscal notes:

Before either house of the legislature may vote on final passage on a bill that if enacted into law would increase state government expenditures or would increase or decrease state government revenues, a fiscal note prepared pursuant to RCW 43.88A.020 must be available on the most recent version of the bill that applies to the bill as it is to be voted upon. In !
no case shall the fiscal note be made available more than seventy-two hours after the bill is placed on final passage.

Perhaps they could call this proposal the "Truth in Spending Act."

"Please don't raise my pay"

January 20, 2009 in Blog

The Olympian reports today on a hearing of The Washington Citizens' Commission on Salaries for Elected Officials. Not surprisingly a majority of those elected officials testifying asked the Commission to not raise their pay in light of the economic situation. As noted by The Olympian:

Testimony before a state citizen salary commission blew like a headwind this morning against giving pay increases this year to state elected officials, judges or legislators.

New state Treasurer Jim McIntire, a Democrat, testified against giving raises, saying increases would put lawmakers — and others poised to freeze the pay of state employees and K-12 teachers — in a tough position. He urged commissioners not to raise pay.

Two other Democrats, Gov. Chris Gregoire and new Commissioner of Public Lands Peter Goldmark, both sent letters to!
the commission arguing against raises. Gregoire wrote that she recognized the difficulty of balancing fair salaries against public opinion.

Rather than force elected officials to beg a commission to not raise their pay, an alternative may be eliminating the Salaries Commission and restoring this conversation to the legislature. Such a change would also have a positive impact on the state's budget.

Consider the fact the Governor's 2009-11 budget provides $395,000 for the Commission's activities.

Budget Needs Reform for Taxpayers to Win

January 17, 2009 in Publications

What do the state budget and area football teams have in common? They share the need for fundamental changes to return to a winning formula.

An Economic Stimulus Package Must Focus on Long-Term Growth, Not Short Term Jobs

January 17, 2009 in Publications

As the United States struggles through a recession, political leaders are hoping a "stimulus package" will save us. There is nothing wrong with the government trying to stabilize or even energize the economy. It is the reason we craft fiscal and monetary polices. The problem with most stimulus packages is that they usually don't work.

Passing the budget test

January 15, 2009 in Blog

When preparing for an important test you should:

A) show up 20 min before the test and wing it;

B) look over a friend's notes on the way to the classroom and hope for the best; or

C) calmly and diligently spend time before the test to prepare? 

Now remember the question is what should you do not what do you do. The obvious answer is C).

Unfortunately when it comes to legislative budget proposals, lawmakers and the public are often forced to do either A) or B).

One way to address this problem is with a "budget timeout" before public hearings or votes could occur on legislative spending proposals. This is a concept supported by Congressman Brian Baird. It also appears state lawmakers recognize the need to provide more time to learn the details on budget proposals !
before action is taken.

Consider the introduction today of SB 5186: Establishing a period of public and legislative review of appropriations legislation:

The legislature finds that approval of the state budget is among the most important acts of the legislature in any year, and that the public is entitled to a reasonable opportunity to learn how public funds are proposed to be expended before bills making appropriations become law. The legislature further finds that public notice, dissemination of information, and informed analysis of proposed budgets is an essential requisite of transparent, accountable government.

Omnibus appropriations bills frequently have been acted on by the legislature in a manner that has afforded little opportunity for public review and information about proposed expenditures, or for members of the legislature to !
deliberate upon proposed appropriations in an informed and con!
scientious manner. The legislature finds this practice has weakened the performance of the legislature in its stewardship of public funds, and reduced public trust in government. The legislature finds that many other states, in their constitutions, statutes, or legislative rules, require an opportunity for public and legislative review of budget legislation.

The legislature therefore finds it in the public interest to provide for an appropriate period of public and legislative review of all omnibus appropriations bills before they are acted on by the legislature and submitted to the governor for approval . . . An omnibus operating, capital, or transportation appropriations bill, or proposed substitute, striking amendment, or conference committee report thereon, must be made publicly available to the members of the legislature and the public at least three calendar days before such a bill may be voted on by the senate or the house of representatives.

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What do you think? Step in the right direction?

Here are some resources on the topic:

Waiting Periods for Fiscal Bills

Lawmakers Need a 72 Hour Budget Timeout

Governor: Reform state government to bring it into the 21st century

January 14, 2009 in Blog

Today Governor Gregoire delivered her second inaugural address. The section of her speech on government reform was music to my ears:

And one thing we have to do together is reform state government to
bring it into the 21st century, and soon. At very basic levels,
businesses are struggling to reform, to change the way they do business because they
simply must to survive. And our business leaders tell me that American
companies, large and small, will emerge from this recession forever
changed.

We have to do the same. And that’s government reform.

This is our chance to reform state government to make it a more nimble and relevant partner in a new state economy.

Ladies and gentlemen, we need to reboot!

Over the decades, state government has evolved — layer upon layer upon
layer. But too much of what served the people well in 1940 or 1960 or
1990 does not serve the people well in the 21st century.

There are sacred cows standing in the way. There are political
roadblocks. But let’s step up to the challenge for the people who sent
us here. For example, we have some 470 separate boards and commissions
across numerous agencies.

Is there anybody in this chamber, or this state, who believes we need
any more than half of 470 boards and commissions to serve the people of
Washington? There are almost 60 involved with the Department of Social
and Health Services alone.

And that’s not the only issue we face. For instance, we have three
agencies managing natural resources, each with its own scientist
standing in the same Washington stream.

We need to reform, and we will.

We need a lean, nimble state government serving our people in the 21st century.

We know we can do it because in some cases we already have.

Today, almost 40 percent of license tabs are renewed online, saving hassles and gas.

We can close 26 licensing offices across the state while extending
hours of operation at the 10 most popular locations. We are finding new
ways to serve our customers. And customer service is what it’s all
about.

Today, 18,000 full-time students at our community and technical
colleges are earning course credits online. It would take an additional
four community colleges to offer all those classes the old-fashioned
way.

Thousands of people go online to check the balance on their food stamp
debit card. And more than half of small business owners are filing
their state taxes online.

I ask you, if we can serve our motorists, our businesses, our students
and our poor with 21st century technology, why can’t we serve all
citizens in ways that are more convenient for them, and cheaper and
more effective for government?

The answer is, we can. The answer is, we will!

I’m putting the finishing touches on a package of reforms for you to
consider this session. I’m asking you to act on them this year. It will
take courage.

But the time has come to put our sacred cows out to pasture forever.

I can’t reform government all by myself. For starters, I’ve asked
Auditor Sonntag to help us figure out ways to sunset boards and
commissions and to help us establish a 21st century way of doing
business.

I am also partnering with business and labor, state employees, citizens, and you, to get the job done.

We need to make sure we have a government for the 21st century so our
workers and businesses can compete with anyone in the world.

I couldn't agree more.

Property tax transparency

January 12, 2009 in Blog

The 2009 Legislative Session is officially underway. If the first day is any indication, it appears property taxes will receive their fair share of attention with numerous bills introduced to reform the way property taxes are calculated and raised. One of the more interesting proposals is HB 1057.

Under the simple description of "Relating to ballot title information," HB 1057 reads (in-part):

If the referendum or question relates to a property tax levy, the ballot title must include a comparison of the aggregate financial impact between the taxing district's levy, if any, in the immediately preceding year and the current ballot, in both dollar and percentage change terms. Ballot questions under RCW 84.55.050 must include an estimate of the financial impact in the first year of the levy increase as compared to the taxing district's last levy, in bot!
h dollar and percentage terms.

Translation: Property tax ballot measures would need to provide context for the cost of passage.

Reading this bill I immediately thought of WPC's proposal for a tax transparency website to help provide citizens details on the various taxing districts they are subject to.

Additional details here:
Taxation Disclosure Act
What taxes we pay: People's database
State revenue flow requires transparency

Obama pursuing federal GMAP

January 7, 2009 in Blog

Although Governor Gregoire wasn't in Washington D.C. earlier this week to meet with President-elect Obama as speculated, it appears he has been paying attention to one of the Governor's priorities: GMAP (Government Management Accountability and Performance). According to Government Executive.com:

President-elect Barack Obama could name the first federal chief performance officer as early as Wednesday, and observers are urging him to choose a candidate with superior managerial skills and deep knowledge of the federal bureaucracy.

During his presidential campaign, Obama vowed to establish a "SWAT team" led by a CPO dedicated to working with agencies to improve results for federal programs and e!
liminate waste and inefficiency. The CPO will "work with federal agencies to set tough performance targets and hold managers responsible for progress," Obama said in September 2008, pledging to meet regularly with Cabinet officials to review their agencies' progress . . .

Robert Shea, former OMB associate director for administration and government performance, said he believes OMB has developed a strong foundation on which the Obama administration can build, but that establishing a CPO position in the White House might help overcome the challenges the agency faces in integrating performance initiatives with the programs they're designed to improve.

"Having a chief performance officer in the White House reporting to the president gives you an opportunity to make the people responsible for achieving the president's priorities pay more attention to the importance of management in achieving those goals," said Shea, now a dir!
ector with the global public sector of consultant firm Grant T!
hornton LLP.

Hopefully Congress and the state Legislature will see the potential to create their own performance teams and start to focus public hearings not on how much money an agency wants but instead on agency performance for current taxpayer investments.

The natural next step would be to place high level performance indicators directly into the budget to help focus expectations for the money appropriated.

Speaking of GMAP, check out the new performance "DataView" website. We sent the GMAP Director a letter last year encouraging a move to this type of database.