Former Washington Auditor Who Championed Good Government, Wins National Honor

April 13, 2013 

The man had a vision and now he’s being recognized for it.

Former Washington State Auditor Brian Sonntag, who is in retirement this year after superb performances in five terms, has won a prestigious national honor. That would be induction into the Heroes of the 50 States: The State Open Government Hall of Fame.

Mr. Sonntag stood out as the epitome of state-government transparency. Yes, as an elected official, he had an unparalleled vision.

Count me as a fan – not only as a citizen and business consultant, but as a columnist who interviewed him on multiple occasions as the “Biz Coach” on KING5.com and two other Washington media Web sites; as well as the host of “Washington Business Weekly,” the Association of Washington Business radio program.

It can’t be over-stated. He was a conscientious public servant dedicated to doing the right thing for taxpayers.

WPC weighs in

His award drew praise from a state public-policy think tank, Washington Policy Center (WPC).

“Sonntag has also been a strong advocate for Washington Policy Center’s proposed legislative transparency reforms,”said Jason Mercier, director, for WPCs Center for Government Reform. “NFOIC’s acknowledgment of Sonntag’s long-time support for open government is well deserved.”

His selection was announced by the National Freedom of Information Coalition (NFOIC) and the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ).

The State Open Government Hall of Fame is a joint venture by SPJ and NFOIC. It was developed by leaders in both organizations as a way to recognize long-term contributions of individuals to open government in their states.

Induction into the State Open Government Hall of Fame recognizes “long and steady effort to preserve and protect the free flow of information about state and local government that is vital to the public in a democracy.” The award is intended to honor individuals – living or dead – whose lifetime commitment to citizen access, open government and freedom of information has left a significant legacy at the state and local level.

When Mr. Sonntag announced his intention to retire, it was a sad day for the state.

To review history and a record of his achievements, here’s what I wrote here on this portal:

No Lame Duck, Washington Official Enhances Economic Public Policy

Oct. 20, 2011  

Like all inspiring great leaders, he and his staff are tenacious in delivering value for all of Washington. Who? State Auditor Brian Sonntag.

Mr. Sonntag is a favorite on this portal, a sagacious Democratic, who has consistently delivered value to state residents, and has always been available to answer questions. Admittedly, I was a bit melancholy about Mr. Sonntag’s announced retirement in 2012.

He has served constituents well, particularly, with his agency’s performance audits and initiatives in improving state-government performance.

And to the end, he continues to do what’s best for the state. He’s working to enhance entrepreneurship, which will help put the state on sound economic footing.

Another favorite entity is Washington Policy Center (WPC). The think tank also provides noteworthy analysis and timely updates.

blog by Jason Mercier is how I learned Mr. Sonntag has been focusing on business regulations to enhance Washington’s economic environment for the creation of jobs. 

Mr. Mercier cites a salient assessment of the state’s regulatory processes in the state auditor’s March 2011 report.

A few highlights:

The complexity of Washington State’s regulatory system creates costs for governments and businesses alike. Not only are there many regulations, but many requirements change every year or two based on new legislation or state agency amendments to existing rules. The Office of the Code Reviser reports that in 2009 alone, state agencies proposed more than 14,000 pages of new or revised rules. 

  • Many regulatory costs to business are fixed, with larger firms able to spread those costs over a greater number of employees, meaning that small businesses bear a disproportionate part of the regulatory burden. A 2007 Department of Revenue study on the business survival rate in Washington found that ‘taxes and costs of complying with government regulations are factors that contribute to business failure because most small businesses are not profitable in the early years.’ (BSSUG, 2007

This is a noteworthy conclusion:

  • Improving the effectiveness of Washington’s regulatory regime through streamlining, clear rule writing, reducing the administrative burden, and other innovations will benefit businesses, state government and taxpayers in general. Clear, fair and efficient regulations will keep Washington competitive in the global economy.”

In his blog, Mr. Mercier indicates we can look forward to five Sonntag performance audits:

  1. Agency efforts to streamline their administrative rules
  2. Agency permit process time
  3. State regulations in excess of federal regulations and the value added for the extra regulation
  4. Agency inspection process and coordination amongst agency inspections
  5. Effectiveness and opportunities for improvement for the state’s one-stop portal for business regulations.

As a result of WPC’s September 2011, the Legislature is getting feedback from small business (What Do Small Business Owners Need from Washington State Policymakers?).

The state’s small businesses want the following:

  1. Review environmental regulations to ensure that Washington rules don’t exceed federal regulations
  2. Legislature should not grant general rule making authority to agencies, but rather be specific about rules to be put in place
  3. Legislature should listen to and follow up on State Auditor Office reports on regulatory reform (tie)
  4. Sunset provisions for regulations (tie)

So a Biz Coach tip of the hat to Mr. Sonntag and his team, as well as to WPC. It’s past time to evolve from an adversarial state government-business relationship to one of effective public policy for economic development.

Frustration is trying to find your glasses without your glasses. 

 __________

Author Terry Corbell has written innumerable online business-enhancement articles, and is a business-performance consultant and profit professional. Click here to see his management services. For a complimentary chat about your business situation or to schedule him as a speaker, consultant or author, please contact Terry. 

How Enterprise Washington Helps State’s Businesses

Feb. 28, 2010

In trying to solve a $2.8 billion budget shortfall, Washington state lawmakers have been debating the wrong issues. Instead of debating whether to increase the sales tax or to eliminate tax exemptions for industries, lawmakers would better serve voters if they dealt with the core issue.

The core issue: Developing a healthy economic climate with public policies that help – not hinder creation of private-sector jobs.

Most businesses have had to significantly cut payroll – 175,000 jobs were lost in two years. However, instead of being good stewards of taxpayer assets, many public officials are frantically looking to spend money and generate more tax revenue. The only jobs the state helps to create are government jobs that exacerbate the economic climate.

Worse, state pensions are 74 percent higher per person compared to the private sector. And the Legislature has failed to fund at least $7.9 billion in healthcare and pension liabilities – a financial time bomb set to explode.

Thirty percent or more of your business headaches are caused by onerous government regulations and taxes.

These and countless other issues hurt the economy.

However, there is hope. At the grass roots level, Enterprise Washington (EW) is an organization effectively clearing the air. They know a strong economy will create jobs in a way that helps the environment.

In essence, the EW folks understand the core issue, and they are recruiting and helping business-friendly candidates get elected to office. I recently met with the group’s principles at their Issaquah office and walked away with favorable impressions. And what’s really neat is that they understand it’s important to be open-minded. They recruit both Democrats and Republicans.

It was refreshing to hear the insights of EW President Erin McCallum.

My sense is that you’ll want to know more about EW. Here are Ms. McCallum’s answers to my questions:

Q: What is your success rate?

A: Since EW’s formation in 2007, there are seven more business-friendly lawmakers in Olympia.  

Five GOP include: Sen. Randi Becker, Reps. Kevin Parker, Jan Angel, Bruce Dammeier and Terry Nealey.

Two Democrats: Reps. Reuven Carlyle and Scott White.

EW was instrumental in five of the seven victories (Becker, Parker, Angel, Nealey and Carlyle).  

In each of these races, EW either identified and recruited the business person or ran a significant independent expenditure campaign that helped educate voters about the candidate who was the stronger champion of the economy and the health and sustainability of Washington’s private sector.

Q: How would you describe your mission?

A: Recruiting, training and electing business-minded state lawmakers. 

Q: You have different organizations under your wing?  

A: Yes we do. EW, the mission is described above and EW’s Jobs PAC which is a 527 political action committee.   There is also a legally separate 501 (C)(3), charitable organization called Business Institute of Washington. It is an educational resource for our communities that helps Washingtonians gain a stronger understanding of the significant role our lawmakers play in establishing laws that govern our state. 

Q: Please describe how they’re structured cohesively.

A: EW is legally organized to influence the outcome of elections in key districts (C-6, membership organization, and a 527 political action committee). EW has established these separate entities to accommodate the different reporting requirements for various political expenditures.

As a result of the economic downturn and what a majority of the public sees as government spending run amok, the current political climate is favorable for pro-business/anti-tax candidates.  Business has an opportunity to capitalize on this shifting political climate during the 2010 election cycle.

Q: Briefly, what is the history of your organization?

A: EW grew out of an old business political action committee, United for Washington. We developed our business model using best practices from business communities in other states, and taking examples from currently successful players in Washington state politics. 

Our research has unveiled that successful special interest groups in Washington state have not been friendly to private sector business for some time.

Q: How would you describe the state of politics in Washington?

A: The political stage was set many years ago for what’s happening in Olympia and state government today. For decades, special interest groups outside of the business community have worked tirelessly in recruiting candidates who will champion their issues and helped get them elected.  Our state’s current political climate augurs opportunity for pro-business candidates – Democrat and Republican, alike. And with the new top two primary, business-friendly Democrats are viable again.

Here are some examples of how other special interest groups operate in our state, and how the private sector community has assisted in bringing them to power:  

Organized labor has done an incredible job in helping to elect candidates to champion their issues in Olympia. Organized labor, with SEIU largely driving the effort, has been effective in politics by winning one race at a time. Their efforts have paid dividends for them on shaping public policy.

Other special interest groups such as the Trial Lawyer Bar, WEA, Firefighters, etc., make sure contributions get funneled to close races, usually to Democrat candidates. When business contributes to both parties (often to gain political access) a significant portion of contributions made to Democrat leaders are transferred to competitive races and used against pro-business candidates. Organized labor has been able to rely on a pro-union majority in both the House and Senate to protect its interests.

Q: How many members or supporters does your organization have?

A: EW currently has about 250 members representing businesses from all across the state in a broad range of industries. This year, we are currently in a drive to double our membership.  Any of you who are business owners and who care about the future of our state, please join us by visiting www.enterprisewashington.org and become a member.

Q: A lot of voters think of business-oriented people as Republicans-only, but you have the vision to be nonpartisan.  Please describe how and why you decided on the nonpartisan approach.

A: Business issues do not necessarily cut clearly across political party lines. Also, given our state’s demographics and increase in population, we recognize that voters in this state are fiscally conservative, socially progressive. With Washington state’s two political parties tending to lean more to the extreme we look for balance and middle ground.

Q: What’s your criterion for a political candidate

A: Our state is quite diverse, so the ideal candidate can vary quite a lot depending on the location of the district. Having said that we are looking for business people, both employers and more likely employees, who have strong experience in the private sector and can bring their expertise to the state lawmaking process.

Q: What’s on tap for your association?

A: We are in the midst of a $1.6 million campaign for Washington’s private sector and invite everyone in business in this state to get engaged through EW membership. Unlike public employee unions that can collect political contributions through the monthly dues process, EW must appeal to the greater business community, those who have the most at stake, to make our programs succeed.

Please go to www.enterprisewashington.org and become a member today! Through membership, you can help elect more business minded state lawmakers who will understand and support public policy that supports private sector jobs.

Q: What else would you like to add?  

A: The business community has a choice to make: either get involved and help elect more business friendly lawmakers or face steeply higher taxes. EW is the only organization in Washington state that is tackling the political landscape with the goal of making significant positive changes to the makeup of our state legislature.  Democracy is not a spectator sport so join EW today! Having strong elected lawmakers who understand that it’s the private sector that creates jobs and turn builds healthy and happy communities.

From the Coach’s Corner, here’s more on upcoming state-government developments:

To identify state efficiencies and savings, Washington State Auditor Brian Sonntag has announced his performance audit work plan.

Seattle business consultant Terry Corbell provides high-performance management services and strategies.