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

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. 

Requiring Specific Legislative Authority for Agency Rule-Making Would Help Washington Businesses

January 7, 2009 in Publications

A proposal has been introduced in the legislature that would revise rule-making requirements to assure that the legislature can carefully review rules that impose significant burdens on Washington businesses before the rules take effect.

Business Rankings Once Again Declare "All is Well with Washington." Not so.

January 6, 2009 in Publications

Washington state is facing a projected $6 billion budget deficit, because the rise in state revenues is not keeping up with the legislature’s planned spending increases. The unemployment rate at the end of 2008 jumped to 7.1%, from 4.6% a year before. The U.S. economy is on shaky ground, and the state economy is also teetering.  

Why Government Spending Does Not Stimulate Growth

January 6, 2009 in Publications

In a throwback to the 1930s and 1970s, some lawmakers are betting that America’s economic ills can be cured by an extraordinary expansion of government. This tired approach has already failed repeatedly in the past year, in which Congress and the President:

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.