Why Not Transparency for Good, Open Government in Washington State?

 

March 24, 2010

Even after concluding its regular 2010 legislative session and after nearly two weeks of a special session, there is no balanced budget. There are no efficiencies. Worse, there is little transparency about taxpayer assets. The Legislature hasn’t learned to stop chasing ill health.

By extension, it’s clear that Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown is not passing the transparency test of good, open government. She has failed to spearhead passage of a balanced budget and has largely ignored efficiencies, such as the Opportunities for Washington, recommended by a prominent member of her own party – State Auditor Brian Sonntag.

Instead of focusing on successfully ending the special session, The Seattle Times reports she sent a letter to Washington State Attorney General Rob McKenna demanding that he stop his health-care efforts and accused him of being “far outside the mainstream interests” of the state. But my straw poll of businesses and consumers shows a majority in favor of his position.

Meantime, here’s a news flash: There is furtive, dubious activity under her leadership – everything from secretly raising taxes; gutting The Taxpayer Protection Act, Initiative 960; and passing ghost tax bills. There are no efforts to create a good economic environment and private sector jobs.

Actively highlighting the disingenuous behavior has been Jason Mercier, director of the Center for Government Reform at the Washington Policy Center (WPC), the nonpartisan think tank.

After seeing this TVW video posted on the Washington Policy Blog in which Speaker Brown denies knowing why Mr. Mercier has repeatedly raised concerns about legislative transparency, how could she be so disconnected?

Most state newspapers have commented to no avail, such as The Seattle Times in Gov. Gregoire: Use veto to keep transparency and in The Washington State Senate and the age of hubris.

When Gov. Gregoire failed to honor the request, the newspaper ran this editorial, Governor, Legislature should have kept two-thirds rule on taxes.

Even The Olympian commented in A bad example of legislative ‘transparency’.

There are plenty of other indications about the absence of transparency. How could she not have noticed any of WPC’s analysis? See for yourself at www.washingtonpolicy.org.

Plus, I’ve written numerous Biz Coach columns on the issue.

I cited $65 million in waste in this column, “Will Government Policies Ever Promote Economic And Political Liberty?” State employees are allowed to carry forward and cash out their unused sick leave.

You see, the state paid $65.3 million in unused sick leave from 2007 to 2009. And state workers have received millions of dollars in this budget cycle. This is a perk you will rarely, if ever, see for taxpayers in the private sector.

The largest employer in Washington, 17.6 percent of the workforce, is government. The retail sector is second with 10.8 percent. In the state’s 2009 comprehensive annual financial report, government expenses outgrew revenue.

Another eye-opener in the report: “Governmental activities resulted in a decrease in the state of Washington’s net assets of $2.2 billion.”

Because of the extravagant spending, the gap in unfunded Washington’s retiree health benefits is $7.9 billon.

Meantime, ranking member of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, Sen. Joe Zarelli, has unsuccessfully argued in favor of transparency with Committee Chair, Sen. Margarita Prentice. This TVW video illustrates violations of legislative transparency standards.

All of this employee pork, unnecessary spending, and violations of transparency standards are why WPC is advocating a constitutional amendment for transparency:

BE IT RESOLVED, BY THE SENATE AND HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES OF THE STATE OF WASHINGTON, IN LEGISLATIVE SESSION ASSEMBLED:

THAT, Transparency and public disclosure in the legislative process is vital to a representative democracy.  THAT, At the next general election to be held in this state the secretary of state shall submit to the qualified voters of the state for their approval and ratification, or rejection, a new section amending Article 2, an amendment to Article 2, section 19, and an amendment to Article 2, section 22 of the Constitution of the state of Washington to read as follows:

Article II, new section.  No bill shall be eligible for a public hearing until 72 hours after introduction.  No bill shall be eligible for legislative action of any kind unless it has first been subject to a public hearing in the same session of consideration.  No bill shall be eligible for legislative action on the floor of either house until 72 hours after it has been placed on the floor calendar.  This section may be suspended with two-thirds of the members elected to the house in which it is pending suspend this requirement, and every individual consideration of a bill or action suspending the requirement shall be recorded in the journal of the respective house. 

Article II, section 19. No bill shall embrace more than one subject, and that shall be expressed in the title.  No bill shall be eligible for public hearing or legislative consideration of any kind unless the bill shall lay forth in full the changes to any act or sections of law. Title only bills shall be prohibited.

Article II, section 22. No bill shall be eligible for final passage in either house unless copies of the bill in the form to be passed shall have been made available to the members of that house and the public for at least twenty-four hours, unless two-thirds of the members elected to the house in which it is pending suspend this requirement, and every individual consideration of a bill or action suspending the requirement shall be recorded in the journal of the respective house.  No bill shall become a law unless on its final passage the vote be taken by yeas and nays, the names of the members voting for and against the same be entered on the journal of each house, and a majority of the members elected to each house be recorded thereon as voting in its favor.

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, That the secretary of state shall cause notice of this constitutional amendment to be published at least four times during the four weeks next preceding the election in every legal newspaper in the state.

 Let’s have a discussion about WPC’s suggestion. Implementing transparency is the right thing to do and will promote good, open government in Washington state. Stop chasing ill health.

From the Coach’s Corner, courtesy of Enterprise Washington, click here to find your legislators’ phone number and email address.

Washington State’s Last Chance for Good Government

Feb. 18, 2010

Instead of focusing on economic growth and the creation of jobs, the 2010 Washington state legislative session has largely been a huge disappointment and insulting to business and consumers. That’s mainly because of the bills to increase taxes and violate standards of transparency as disingenuous ploys to balance the budget.

One of the few bright spots: Rodney Tom, a Washington state senator (D-48, Bellevue) understands it’s possible to save money by eliminating an unwarranted state service and going green, too. He’s introduced a bill to eliminate the state printer.

Buried in his bill is this statement: “…printing is not a core state service and would be better handled within the private sector.”

There are other examples of non-core state services, such as the liquor-selling agency that employees nearly 1500 state workers.

Click here for other examples of a bloated state workforce and non-essential services. Per capita, Washington has more employees than California.

A $2.8 billion shortfall is a lot of red ink. The state spending in recent years greatly exceeded the potential revenue pie. There were red flags everywhere. Administrators and lawmakers ignored repeated valid suggestions in order to be good stewards of taxpayer assets. I’ve cited numerous solutions.

Washington’s unemployment rate of 9.5 percent should be a deterrent for tax increases. But it isn’t. Ask the Association of Washington Business (AWB), www.awb.org, about the impact of a proposal to hike unemployment insurance taxes.

Here’s more about the Washington State Legislature’s spending and taxes:

There was a Washington Supreme Court case in recent years over incriminating e-mails in the shell game to circumvent the state’s spending limit.

So, this year we’ve seen a blank, ghost tax bill. That’s right, no text.

We’ve been aghast at the elitist suspension of the transparency safeguards in the Taxpayer Protection Act, Initiative 960, which was passed by voters in 2007.

We’ve seen proposals for sin tax increases as high as 500 percent and a tax on candy, which adversely impacts a heritage employer, Brown and Haley, which has been struggling.

There’s a tax on oil companies that will hurt businesses and consumers. Supporters of the 300 percent increase are either naïve or disingenuous in their claims that oil companies will not pass the tax to purchases at the pump.

And Gov. Chris Gregoire promoted her $605 million in tax increases.

My apologies if there are any omissions. But you get the picture.

The bottom-line: The tax proposals are unwarranted and Gov. Gregoire has an opportunity to exercise a line-item veto of the legislature’s repeal of the two-thirds vote requirement for tax increases.

Language in I-960 includes:

“Our state constitution guarantees to the people the right of referendum. In recent years, however, the legislature has thwarted the people’s constitutional right to referendum by excessive use of the emergency clause . . . The people find that, if they are not allowed to vote on a tax increase, good public policy demands that at least the legislature should be aware of the voters’ view of individual tax increases. An advisory vote of the people at least gives the legislature the views of the voters and gives the voters information about the bill increasing taxes and provides the voters with legislators’ names and contact information and how they voted on the bill. The people have a right to know what’s happening in Olympia.”

In all candor, reporting on the legislature’s excesses is a full-time job – precious time I don’t have in writing business-coaching columns.

Fortunately, the Washington Policy Center (WPC), an authoritative and trusted non-partisan think tank does an excellent job of tracking bills and feeding valuable information to reporters and columnists like me.

“By repealing for two years the non-binding advisory votes, lawmakers that vote for a tax increase will be spared from having their names show up in the voter’s pamphlet next to a description of the tax increases they supported as required by RCW 29A.32.070,” says WPC’s director for government reform, Jason Mercier.

“Short of a change of heart in the Senate, the only thing that can ensure the non-binding tax advisory votes as intended by the voters remains in effect is the governor’s veto pen,” he adds. “The Constitution provides the governor line-item veto authority which means she could approve the two-year repeal of the two-third’s vote requirement while maintaining the non-binding tax advisory vote provision.”

Otherwise, businesses and taxpayers will only have one option – the November elections – which has a precedent in Washington state. That’s the massive voter rejection of incumbents in 1994.

Following widespread protests over massive business-tax increases in 1993, the Washington State Association of County Assessors invited me to advise the 60 assessors on how to get legislative approval to reduce property taxes.  I conducted a special seminar for the assessors. 

It was unprecedented and gratifying when assessors persuaded state lawmakers to reduce property taxes by 4.7 percent in the ensuing 1995 session.

Let’s hope, it won’t get to that point again. You can make a difference by contacting your lawmakers (http://apps.leg.wa.gov/rosters/).

Economic and political freedoms are at-risk.

From the Coach’s Corner, a nonpartisan organization is working behind the scenes and doing something positive – very positive – to insure businesses have a voice:

Enterprise Washington, www.enterprisewashington.org.

I’ve met with the Enterprise Washington folks and I believe they’re nonpartisan, effective and passionate about their work.

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