Common Sense Needed for Washington State Pension Reform

Updated March 19, 2012

It’s no secret that Washington state has a nightmarish budget deficit. Lawmakers have consistently failed to solve the red ink, which is exacerbated by lavish public-employee pensions.

My two salient concerns:

1.  Public-sector pensions are on average about 74 percent higher than the private sector.

2.  The Legislature has been delinquent in funding them in the billions of dollars.

But lawmakers aren’t exactly shy about high spending and taxes.

Fortunately, I’m not alone in sounding the alarm. Concerned analysts also include Jason Mercier of the Washington Policy Center, www.washingtonpolicy.orgin a 2010 Op Ed in The Seattle Times.

“According to the state actuary, two of Washington’s nine pension plans are already in the red with unfunded liabilities totaling nearly $7 billion,” he reminded readers. “This does not include an additional $8 billion in unfunded post-retirement benefit liability, primarily for retiree health care. Unlike pensions, however, these other retirement benefits are not a contractual right, meaning the Legislature has the ability to make changes as necessary.”

He, too, understood the adverse pension impact on the state’s budget.

“Already our state is facing nearly a $6 billion projected budget shortfall for 2011-13. Included in these projections is the need for additional pension contributions” Mr. Mercier wrote. “The state’s Office of Financial Management projects that an additional $700 million in pension payments above the base will be required in the 2011-13 biennium.”

The forecasts proved to be accurate.

He further stated that pension costs will continue to grow – to $1.2 billion during the 2013 to 2015 budgeting cycle.

“To help avoid kicking the pension liability can further down the road while putting the state’s credit rating in jeopardy, it may be time to pass a constitutional amendment that forces state officials to make the required pension payments and creates a higher threshold to provide enhanced benefits,” he observed. “While funding these past pension promises may crowd out other spending, the alternative puts taxpayers in a worse position.”

He offered another vital solution:

“Meanwhile, legislators must stop enhancing retiree benefits until all the state’s pension plans return to healthy status,” Mr. Mercier explained. “Exacerbating taxpayer exposure while billions in unfunded liabilities exist is the height of irresponsibility. It may also be time for additional reforms to help minimize future pension liabilities.”

It’s also worth noting that constitutional pension reforms were advocated by State Treasurer Jim McIntire.


From the Coach’s Corner, here’s another piece on pension reform: Washington Labor Leader Is Right – It Is ‘Class Warfare’.

“Pension reform can be hard to talk about. In the long run, reform now means fewer demands for layoffs and less draconian measures in the future. It’s in the best interest of all Californians to fix this system now.” 

-Jerry Brown


Columnist Terry Corbell is also a business-performance consultant and profit professional. Click here to see his management services (many are available online). For a complimentary chat about your business situation or to schedule Terry Corbell as a speaker, why don’t you contact him today?

Washington Needs Soul-Searching in Public Policy, Budgeting – and Action


Sept. 16, 2010

So now we have further confirmation that Washington state is long overdue in launching a prudent approach to public policy and budgeting. Officially, the state forecasts another $1.4 billion shortfall until June, 2013. That means red ink totaling at least $4.5 billion.

“The governor has already responded to this forecast by authorizing across-the-board cuts, but that simply isn’t the most thoughtful approach available,” said state Sen. Joseph Zarelli, R-Ridgefield, in a press release.

“On one hand she says she wants the next state budget to reflect the priorities of government and Washington values; on the other hand she has ordered cuts to the current budget that allow little if any consideration for priorities and values,” he added.

Sen. Zarelli also raised the salient question:

“What sense does it make to cut services for our most vulnerable citizens by the same percentage as the state’s efforts to promote tourism?”

His suggested alternative to across-the-board cuts?

“It would be better for the Legislature to convene for a short special session, because we can do things the governor can’t. We can make policy and structural changes that would focus the available revenue on the most essential services, and leave enough in reserve to get the state through June, when the biennium ends. We can also adopt reforms that would help when it’s time to write the 2009-11 budget,” wrote Sen. Zarelli.

To more than 50,000 state workers, he e-mailed this request:

“We hope you will take the time, either at work or at home, to submit your savings ideas here. Your ideas will be routed directly to us.”

How does the Office of Financial Management explain the budget shortfall?

“Revenue for the current budget period, 2009-11, is projected to decrease $770 million, resulting in total projected General Fund revenue for the biennium of $28.5 billion. Revenue for the next budget period, 2011-13, is projected to decrease $669 million, resulting in total projected General Fund revenue for that biennium of $33.4 billion.

‘With this drop in revenue, our current budget is now projected to be in the red,’ said Marty Brown, director of OFM. ‘We will enact cuts to address this problem while we look for ways to transform the budget and address shortfalls for the next budget period.’

The forecast projects an ending fund deficit for 2009-11 of $516 million, which includes $4 million in the rainy-day fund.”

Ouch, but it’s not surprising news. As a business-performance consultant, the state’s dubious policymaking and budgeting have been frequent topics here.

What is shocking has been the state’s lack of transparency in budgeting and that many elected officials — excluding State Auditor Brian Sonntag — have been late to the solution process and have not solved these predicted and lingering problems. That’s inadvisable public policy and budgeting.

“Despite still projecting revenue growth of nearly $5 billion between 2009-11 and 2011-13, a budget shortfall exceeding $4.5 billion is projected for the next budget due to a structural spending imbalance and the carry forward costs of programs in the current budget,” said Jason Mercier, the director of the Center for Government Reform at the Washington Policy Center.

“This budget crisis makes it imperative for legislative leaders to bring lawmakers back to Olympia to solve this problem in a thoughtful way,” said Mr. Mercier. “Failing to do their job until the 2011 session convenes in January would be the ultimate abdication of their legislative responsibility to balance the budget.

“If lawmakers continue to refuse to balance the budget they should at least call a short special session to change state law to allow the Governor to make discretionary and rational cuts while leaving up to a one percent reserve,” Mr. Mercier concluded.

Well said, as usual. Actually, Mr. Mercier and Sen. Zarelli have long expressed their public policy and budgetary concerns.

Since 2001, The Biz Coach column, at three Seattle media Web sites, has warned that Washington state’s economy has been too valuable and/or too-fragile to gamble with costly unknowns.

This Web site was launched July 29, 2009. You’ll find countless archived Biz Coach public policy columns with warnings and solutions including, the initial column, Analysis: Steps for Economic Success in Washington State. Not to be gauche, the column’s ideas are valid today. It’s past time to reboot – before it’s too late.

From the Coach’s Corner, for more background information and sound ideas, here are four resource links:

I-1053: Critical to Washington State Businesses and Workers


June 10, 2010

Washington state voters face critical decision-making. The success of the state’s economy and job-creation efforts hinges largely on Initiative 1053. Proponents have been working feverishly to qualify I-1053 for the Nov. 2010 ballot. It would restore monetary protections for businesses and all other taxpayers from the perennial chicanery of the state Legislature.

It requires a two-thirds legislative vote for any new taxes. In my view, it insures a higher degree of transparency, which is constantly lacking in the Legislature.

 “Reinstating the supermajority vote for new taxes has never been more important with the very real threat of even more tax increases in the 2011 session – or earlier,” says Don Brunell, president of the Association of Washington Business, which is also known as the state’s chamber of commerce.

“This warning has been confirmed by recent news from Governor Gregoire that a special session may be necessary as the state budget may be in doubt due to lawmakers relying on federal funds that are not likely to materialize,” he adds. 

But it has not yet qualified for the ballot with enough voter signatures.

“With less than a month left to gather signatures some may wonder how many of the initiative campaigns will be successful and qualify for the ballot,” says Jason Mercier, director of the Center for Government Reform for the Washington Policy Center.

“One measure, I-1053, may benefit from news from the Office of Financial Management that the state is facing at least a $3 billion deficit in the next budget,” asserts Mr. Mercier.

“This means lawmakers’ first choice to solve the problem next year may be tax increases unless the voters re-impose for the fourth time the restriction that tax increases require a two-thirds vote,” he warns.

Fourth time? Yes, he’s right – a fourth time. For many years, I’ve been writing about legislative chicanery that has damaged commerce and taxpayers. Every time voters approve restrictions on spending, lawmakers find ways furtively and overtly to circumvent the will of voters.

In 2010, lawmakers suspended transparency provisions and the provisos of I-960, which voters passed in 2007. It mandated tax increases could only be implemented by a two-thirds supermajority vote in the Legislature or upon approval by voters. But then, after the destroying voters’ protections and refusing to require efficiencies in state government, the Legislature passed more than $800 million in additional taxes.

But there is some good news. Sixty percent of voters are in favor of the requirements of I-1053, according to the Washington Poll in May, 2010. In another Washington Poll, More Voters Say Washington State is Headed the Wrong Way.

In a sense, that’s encouraging because the Washington State Office of Financial Management echoes a dire warning about future budget issues that I’ve been giving for what seems like forever.

Its budget-writing instructions for state agencies for the 2011-13 Biennium states:

“A preliminary estimate by OFM indicates that a gap of about $3 billion between expected revenues and basic spending pressures (not including any new programs or policies) will need to be addressed to balance the budget,” according to budget instructions by the state office of financial management ( see page 7 of the document).

“Although stronger-than-predicted revenue growth would help remedy this situation, revenues would need to grow by more than 9 percent per year to make up most of the projected gap, a rate which is unlikely to be achieved,” the authors warn.

From the Coach’s Corner, for more information, here are resource links:

Association of Washington Business –

Washington Policy Center –

Enterprise Washington –

Why Proposed Washington Income Tax Will Kill Jobs


Updated April 26, 2010 9:12 a.m.

When Bill Gates Sr. last proposed a Washington state income tax in 2002, he was chair of the Washington State Tax Structure Committee that was created by the Legislature. Comprised of academics and legislators, the committee studied how the tax system could be altered in the 21st century.

The committee was charged with studying “fairness, stability, adequacy and the effect of the tax system on Washington’s economic vitality.” However, the idea failed to get any traction. It was not perceived as fair, stable, and adequate. And it would have hindered the state’s economy as it emerged from the economic hangover from 9/11 and the dot-com bust.

Mr. Gates’ new income-tax proposal, Initiative 1077, won’t work either. On the surface, it sounds feasible. But the state’s unemployment rate is 9.5 percent. An income tax would discourage investment in the creation of jobs, and it emboldens more bad behavior by spend-and-tax legislators.

Already, Washington ranks among the worst states in sales and business taxes. Consider states like California and New York with their high sales and business taxes. They also have an income tax, and they’re nearly bankrupt.

Moreover, there are many reasons why an income tax is not to be trusted in Washington state.

After waiting out the two-year time limit to for overturning initiatives in 2010, Washington lawmakers jumped at their chance to suspend the transparency provisions of the Taxpayer Protection Act, Initiative 960.

Never were there serious discussions about reducing the footprint of government or even prioritizing the core services of government in the $2.8 billion shortfall. We are still saddled with unnecessary, expensive services including state retail liquor stores, the state printer, and the associated employee payroll costs and unfunded state-worker pensions.

Instead, with unlimited chicanery, the legislators violated the will of voters in a variety of ways:

  • They passed a ghost tax bill with just a title and literally no text – a blank bill.
  • Lawmakers refused to remove their disingenuous exemption from the state’s public records law.
  • Public hearings were scheduled without 24 hours notice.

Then, the legislators passed more than $808 million in new taxes in their unsustainable budget. They relied heavily on federal government funds to balance the budget, and it’s already well-known that the next biennium budget also faces billions in red ink. What will they do then?

Was the Legislature’s dysfunction a surprise? No. For years, the Legislature has circumvented the will of the people.

State’s pattern of ignoring voters

In 2006, state officials were proven guilty in Superior Court – their secretive, incriminating government e-mails were part of a shell game that circumvented spending limits. They included state officials and employees – including members of the Legislature, Office of Financial Management, Expenditure Limit Committee, the governor, and even the attorney general appeared to oppose the will of voters on state spending.

A coalition of business and consumer watchdog groups took them to court for violating the state spending limits of Initiative 601. The coalition included: The Washington Farm Bureau, the National Federation of Independent Business, the Washington State Grange, the Building Industry Association of Washington, the Washington Association of Realtors, and the Evergreen Freedom Foundation.

Snohomish County Superior Court Judge James Allendoerfer ruled the state’s collection of certain taxes was illegal and that the Legislature improperly increased the state’s spending limit in 2005 by $250 million.

The incriminating e-mails showed budget writers knowingly violated the law and shifted funds around to artificially increase the spending limit. Other e-mails also revealed a furtive dialogue involving Office of Financial Management strategies that manipulated funds for new spending in the 2006 supplemental budget.

The losing side sarcastically poked fun at a coalition’s complaint that the spending increase was approved after just 25 minutes of consideration by the state’s Expenditure Limit Committee, which has authority to increase the state’s spending limit.

The committee was comprised of Victor Moore, director of the Office of Financial Management; Maureen Hart, the Attorney General’s representative; Sen. Margarita Prentice, chair of the Senate Ways and Means Committee; and Rep. Helen Sommers, chair of the House Appropriations Committee.

Minutes from the committee’s meeting on November 25, 2005 illustrate why the coalition was concerned. The meeting ran short because all the substantive discussions took place earlier, which the incriminating e-mails demonstrated. With Hart recusing herself, the brief meeting concluded with a unanimous vote to increase the state’s spending limit in I-601.

Why did voters pass I-601? Times were tough in 1993. Figuratively, Washington voters erected a big red stop sign at the state capitol and passed I-601 to halt skyrocketing tax increases. Voters were concerned about public-sector indifference.

Even the Washington State Association of County Assessors took note of voter attitudes. In late 1994, the group invited me to advise them on strategy to persuade the Legislature to reduce property taxes. As I sat down following my pro bono seminar, I’ll never forget my disappointment when I heard Scott Noble, who was the then-interim King County Assessor, sitting across the table, refuse to participate in the effort.

“It will never work,” he said. But most assessors were receptive to lowering property taxes and they successfully persuaded state lawmakers to reduce property taxes in the ensuing 1995 session. And we know what happened to Mr. Noble, who was forced to resign in disgrace following his drunk-driving accident that resulted in injury to others.

Income tax – another $1 billion burden

The new income-tax proposal, in this uncertain economy, would dump another $1 billion in tax burdens on many of the very businesspeople who are capable of creating thousands of badly needed jobs.

It would be an additional 9-percent tax on income of $500,000 or more and a 5-percent tax on income of more than $200,000. They are already paying exorbitant fees for unemployment insurance and workers’ compensation.

In economic development and job creation, the great equalizer has been the lack of an income tax.

Proponents of I-1077, perhaps unknowingly, are instigating class warfare in claiming they want to lower taxes on most people while taxing the rich. But I-1077 would not eliminate the sales tax, which indelibly hurts the livelihoods of low-income people.

It would lower the state’s portion of the property tax by 20 percent. But that would only slightly reduce a property owner’s taxes – 96 percent of the property tax would remain. The slight reduction, of course, would be negated by the ever-increasing property assessments. So it’s a disingenuous argument.

Micro businesses, the self-employed, would not be liable for the business and occupation (B&O) tax. Larger businesses would receive a $4,400 tax credit. However, as any entrepreneur knows, $4,400 is a negligible amount as a business cost in the hiring an employee in salary and benefits.

Incidentally, an income tax was thrown out in 1933. Voters have since refused income-tax proposals five times. Seemingly, voters have known an income tax would be increasingly burdensome.  Taxes never go away. Government incessantly grows bigger.

The B&O tax was introduced as a temporary measure in the 1930s, but you guessed it. Businesses have been saddled with it ever since. The B&O tax is grossly unfair. It does not tax profits. It taxes revenue. Even if a business loses money, it’s subject to the tax.

It’s especially regressive on new businesses. Imposing B&O taxes on a startup makes it harder for it to succeed. And it’s a major factor why Washington is a leader in startup failures. We don’t need failures. We need entrepreneurs to be successful to create jobs.

In essence, Washington state government has a documented propensity to trample on the economic freedom and political freedom of businesspeople and voters. There is not a voter-approved agreement regarding the state’s core services.

Until there is agreement, state government shrinks significantly and voter wishes are upheld, here’s a resounding no to an income tax. An income tax would threaten more danger for the state because it chases ill-economic health. The proposed income tax won’t work – because it won’t put Washingtonians to work.

From the Coach’s Corner, do you need more evidence why the Washington State Legislature cannot be trusted?

See this blog from Jason Mercier of the Washington Policy Center regarding transparency.

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

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:


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.

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