It isn’t often during government hearings that you hear someone actually ask the question, “Why are we doing this, anyway?”

It’s even rarer when the person testifying concedes he isn’t altogether sure.

A Tuesday morning meeting of the Select Committee on Pension Policy, however, did yield a surprisingly candid exchange between committee member Glen Olson, representing the Washington State Association of Cities and Towns, and policy analyst Aaron Guttierez, who was explaining an otherwise bland study the committee staff was conducting on the feasibility of combining LEOFF 1 and LEOFF 2, a pair of pension plans set up for the benefit law enforcement officers and firefighters.

Olson: “When you say that you’re going to evaluate a merger and whether or not it’s going to accomplish ‘their’ goals, is it naive to ask who ‘they’ are and what their goals are? Or maybe more specifically, what’s the problem statement?

Gutierrez: “In terms of what’s the problem statement, we haven’t really developed a problem statement, so to speak…”

There ensued an understandably confusing attempt by Gutierrez to explain how the staff is conducting a study whose goals and purposes have never been defined. Then Olson jumps back in.

Olson: “You don’t have to invent something that isn’t there. No one handed you a nice, tidy problem statement that said, ‘Because LEOFF Plan 2 is in such a situation, we need LEOFF Plan 1 to be merged,’ or something clean like that.”

Gutierrez: “Correct. We’ve been going straight from the budget proviso, which basically said, ‘Study the issue of merging the two plans.’ “

At this point, the discussion meanders away from the question of a problem statement, but a few minutes later it’s revisited by Rep. Bill Hinkle (R-Cle Elum).

Hinkle: “Next year will be my 10th in the Legislature, and in that time I can’t remember any legislation that’s instituted a study that didn’t have a real goal in mind. I’ve been trying to hear that, (and) I don’t really understand what we’re trying to do. For those watching on TVW—all 14 of you—I’d like to ask the question, ‘What is this legislation about? How much are we going to spend to study something when we really don’t have a goal in mind?’ I don’t get that.”

By this time, Gutierrez has been joined at the microphone by Washington State Actuary Matt Smith.

Smith: “We’re in a bit of an awkward position to have to respond to a fairly vague study mandate, so we’re applying our judgment to what we think would be most useful…”

Hinkle: “So no one has actually told you, ‘This is why we’re doing this? This is what we’re trying to accomplish?” I can’t imagine we’d take this up and not have that said.”

Smith: “It’s a study mandate, so we have to rely on the language that was provided to us and the input we’ve received to help frame our response … That’s really the best we can do. But I would agree, it really does not have a clear problem statement. You won’t find that in the study mandate.”


Got all that? Here it is in a nut shell: During the 2011 session, a bill was proposed that would have merged the two pension systems. It didn’t pass, but rather than kill it outright—thus hurting the feelings of the bill’s sponsor—lawmakers agreed on a compromise to study the idea for future consideration.

So here we are, six months later, with an frustrated policy wonk being grilled by a room full of decision-makers trying to justify a study whose purpose no one was never told—probably because the legislation is almost certainly going nowhere anyway.

Your tax dollars at work.


[Reprinted from the Freedom Foundation blog; photo credit: HidingInABunker]