Tag: Washington state government

State House Budget on Deck

Last Friday night the Senate approved its operating budget with a bipartisan 30-18 vote. The House is expected to release its counter proposal on Wednesday. As with most budgets there are good and bad components of the Senate plan.

On the plus side it keeps the promise made to taxpayers in 2010 that several temporary taxes would expire this year and doesn’t rely on any general tax increases. There are also several strong provisos linking spending to performance (including these budget studies). The Senate budget also makes the actuarial recommended pension payment (keeping the state’s pension liability from worsening) and assumes adoption of SB 5851 to create an optional defined contribution pension plan for state employees. Along with restricting future spending growth (non-education) with the original I-601 growth factor (population plus inflation), the Senate budget also avoids spending from the constitutional emergency reserve account. While all budgets make assumptions, the Senate budget is the first one in recent memory that if its assumptions hold would not result in a deficit in the next budget (2015-17) and would comply with the state’s new four-year balanced budget requirement.

Of concern are some of the details in the balance sheet including various fund transfers, redirection of dedicated accounts (such as the I-900 performance audit funds), reversions in excess of the small unrestricted ending fund balance, extension of a questionable nursing home bed tax and reliance on Obamcare’s terms penciling out.

With the regular session scheduled to end on April 28, lawmakers have their work cut out for them to come to agreement on a budget than balances without resorting to job killing tax increases (and yes extension of a temporary tax not only breaks a promise but is a tax increase).

We’ll have a review of the House budget after we have time read it. Unfortunately that likely won’t before the House holds a public hearing on its proposal since that hearing is scheduled for just a few hours after the budget details are to be released. Kind of makes one wonder what that purpose of the public hearing is for since it’s unlikely those testifying will have had time to read and understand the budget beforehand (or lawmakers for that matter).

[Reprinted with permission from the Washington Policy Center blog; featured image: Scott Ableman]

Executive Session Taping Bill Receives Public Hearing

The Senate Committee on Government Operations heard public testimony today on SB 6109: Exempting video and audio recordings of closed executive session meetings from public inspection and copying. SB 6109 reflects a new strategy by the Attorney General and State Auditor to ensure that executive sessions aren’t being misused in violations of the state’s Open Public Meetings Act (OPMA).

I joined State Auditor Brian Sonntag and Tim Ford, Open Government Ombudsman for the Attorney General’s Office, in testifying on SB 6109:

(Click here for video)

Previous efforts by the State Auditor and Attorney General to require taping of executive session was met with fierce resistance by local governments. Among the concerns expressed was that such recordings would be subject to public disclosure thus circumventing the legal use of executive session. To address this concern SB 6109 would exempt recordings of executive session from public disclosure.

According to the intent section of the OPMA:

“The legislature finds and declares that all public commissions, boards, councils, committees, subcommittees, departments, divisions, offices, and all other public agencies of this state and subdivisions thereof exist to aid in the conduct of the people’s business. It is the intent of this chapter that their actions be taken openly and that their deliberations be conducted openly.

The people of this state do not yield their sovereignty to the agencies which serve them. The people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know. The people insist on remaining informed so that they may retain control over the instruments they have created.”

To fulfill this intent the OPMA requires all meetings of state and local government governing bodies to be open to the public and announced in advance. However, the law allows the governing officials to meet behind closed doors in an executive session for certain limited purposes, such as consulting with their attorney on litigation, or discussing the maximum price they are willing to pay for a parcel of land.

Closed executive sessions are allowed only if the purpose of the meeting is announced in advance, and the secret discussion is limited to the announced allowed topic.

According to the State Auditor’s Office, however, there have been hundreds of violations of this requirement.

This is why WPC believes that to ensure executive sessions are not being used to evade public disclosure, the sessions should be recorded and made exempt from disclosure under the Public Records Act and from subpoena or discovery in a lawsuit.

If a lawsuit is filed under the Open Public Meetings Act challenging the propriety of the executive session, and the person filing the lawsuit presents evidence sufficient to convince a judge that a violation had likely occurred, the recordings could be used to settle the question.

If a judge finds the challenged executive session included improper discussions and violated the law, the recording of only the portions of the meeting that should not have occurred in executive session could then be publicly disclosed.

Here is a 2008 handout by the Attorney General’s Office in support of taping executive sessions.


[Reprinted from the Washington Policy Center blog; photo credit: thejcgerm]

State’s ‘Checkbook’ Now Open for Public Scrutiny

The state’s searchable budget transparency website (www.fiscal.wa.gov) has a new feature: Washington’s “Vendor Checkbook.” This is the equivalent of the state’s checkbook. Here is how this new resource is described:

“The Vendor Checkbook is jointly maintained by the Office of Financial Management (OFM) and the Office of the Legislative Evaluation and Accountability Program Committee (LEAP).

The Vendor Checkbook information represents payments generated through Washington’s Agency Financial Reporting System (AFRS). Certain types of payments are excluded. These exclusions include (1) state employee salary and benefit data, which are available elsewhere on this site; (2) payments exempt from disclosure per state and federal law; and (3) revenue refunds. Information on payments for purchase card activity is limited to one line per spending type per payment. The data in AFRS do not include further detail. Additionally, the State has decided not to disclose payments to injured workers or retirees for the workers’ compensation and pension systems it administers. Travel payments are temporarily not disclosed.

While AFRS is the State’s principal payment system, some payments are generated through other agency systems which feed summary level payment information into AFRS. Agencies generating the majority of their payments outside of AFRS (and therefore not included in the vendor checkbook) include higher education institutions, the State Lottery, Employment Security Department, Department of Transportation, and the Department of Retirement Systems.

Each agency is responsible for the accuracy of its payment data. Payments are presented as originally entered and do not include subsequent corrections. Vendor checkbook data is available from December 15, 2011, onward and is updated monthly, following the monthly close of AFRS. Although OFM and LEAP make reasonable and appropriate efforts to maintain the timeliness of Vendor Checkbook information, the data presented have not been audited and may contain errors, omissions, or misstatements. Payment data are presented on a cash basis which may not reconcile to state expenditure data presented on a modified accrual basis elsewhere on this site.”

Users are able to search the data by agency or vendor.

Since the state’s searchable budget website was created in 2008 based on our recommendation we’ve been working with OFM and LEAP to add the vendor database. Last summer state employee compensation was added to the website in a searchable format.

One additional feature that would be worth adding to the website in the future is the ability to access state contracts by agency. Summary contract data is currently available here. State labor contracts are available here.


[Reprinted from the Washington Policy Center blog]

Details of State Employee Salaries Released by OFM

The Office of Financial Management has released the 2011 Personnel Detail Report.

According to OFM:

“This edition of the Personnel Detail Report includes total calendar year earnings for employees on the state payroll at any time between Jan. 1 2010 and Dec. 31 2010. The report is compiled by the state Office of Financial Management (OFM) from information provided by the state’s payroll systems. The information OFM receives from the payroll systems is entered and maintained at the individual agencies . . .

In the past, the report was compiled by gathering data from a ‘snapshot’ of a single pay period from January, and it showed only an employee’s base pay (salary, hourly wage or contract payment). The 2011 report shows total gross earnings for 2010 paid through the state’s or institution of higher education’s payroll system, which is base pay and any additional compensation or premiums such as overtime, callback, standby or assignment pay. Unlike the 2009 report, the 2011 report does not include an employee count for each agency.”

Here are the individual compensation reports:

Personnel Detail as PDF files:

Personnel Detail Contents by Agency*

Personnel Detail Contents by Functional Area*

Personnel Detail as text files:


Functional Area

Download Personnel Detail (Zip file of text versions)

Supporting information:

Personnel Listed in this Report

Special Salary Information

Frequently asked questions


[Reprinted from the Washington Policy Center blog; photo credit: flickr]

WEA and House Dems Sue Voters to End 2/3 Vote Requirement for Tax Hikes

In the waning hours of the “budget focused” special session Democrats in the House and Senate both attempted to cue up votes on a tax bill not assumed in the budget that no one expected to pass. The strategy was to try to gain legal standing to sue the voters to overturn the 18 year old 2/3 vote requirement for tax increases.

Today this legislative charade has come to fruition as several House Democrats have joined the Washington Education Association (WEA) and the League of Education Voters to file a lawsuit to overturn the four-time voter approved 2/3 vote requirement for tax increases.

Here is a copy of today’s legal filing.

The lawsuit highlights the failure of the Legislature to fund Initiative 728 and 732 as proof of harm as to why taxes should be easier to raise.

Since funding was not identified for I-728/732 (other than surplus funds) when originally adopted and the measures were subsequently suspended during tough budget times, voters were asked in 2004 to approve I-884 and in 2010 to approve I-1098 to pay in-part for the policies of I-728 and I-732. Both measures were overwhelming rejected statewide.

Reading the tea leaves of I-728, 732, I-884 and I-1098, it appears the voters supported the policies of I-728 and I-732 when they were “free” and wouldn’t hurt the budget or require tax increases but were against them when asked to raise taxes to pay for them.

Here are additional details on what the voters were promised concerning tax increases when voting on I-728 and I-732.

As for the 4-time approval of the 2/3 vote requirement, however, voters have consistently said yes to imposing this restriction on lawmakers.

Voters first enacted the 2/3 vote requirement for tax increases in 1993 with I-601, reaffirmed it 1998 with Referendum 49, reenacted it in 2007 with I-960, and again last year with 64% approving I-1053.

The Legislature has also enacted the 2/3 vote restriction including a 2006 bill that was signed by Governor Gregoire. That proposal (SB 6896) was primarily focused at redefining the spending limit adopted in 1993 to facilitate the large increase in spending that help set the stage for our current budget challenges. To throw voters a bone when rewriting the spending limit, Democrats also ended their 2005 suspension of the 2/3 vote requirement a year early. According to the bill report for SB 6896:

“The authority of the Legislature to increase state revenues without a two-thirds vote is terminated on June 30, 2006.”

Despite numerous legislative amendments to the law, the Legislature has never fully repealed the mandate from voters that tax increases require a two-thirds vote and in the case of SB 6896 in 2006, Democrats voted to reinstate the restriction a year early.

Not able or willing to fully eliminate the 2/3 restriction legislatively, opponents have tried over the last 18 years to get the Court to throw out the requirement.

Here is what the Attorney General’s Office said (in-part) back in 2008 about the constitutionality of the 2/3 vote requirement when it was last challenged in court (page 37 – legal citations omitted):

“Petitioner attempts to meet her ‘responsibility of proving that [RCW 43.135.035(1)] is unconstitutional beyond a reasonable doubt’ on the basis of a constitutional provision that, by its own terms, does not prohibit the statute that she challenges. Article 2, Section 22 provides, ‘[n]o bill shall become a law unless . . . a majority of the members elected to each house be recorded thereon as voting in its favor.’ Article 2, Section 22 establishes a constitutional minimum number of votes for a bill to become law. It only describes the circumstances under which a bill does not pass. In other words, Article 2, Section 22 does not prohibit statutes by which the legislature (or the people) express their legislative policy judgment that certain types of bills warrant greater than simple majority consensus for passage. RCW 43.135.035(1) expresses such a legislative policy judgment—that a two-thirds majority vote of each house should be required for passage of bills raising taxes. The statute hardly conflicts with the constitutional floor set by Article 2, Section 22, as any bill receiving its supermajority support has met the requirement of Article 2, Section 22 . . .

Both the framers of the constitution and subsequent legislatures and voters have recognized that certain specified actions should command the support of more than a simple majority. Petitioners, to the contrary, urge that the same constitutional convention that embraced supermajorities for some purposes intended to prohibit statutes requiring supermajorities for any other purposes. The Constitution contains no language supporting this notion, however. The framers may not reasonably be presumed to have implied the prohibition of a political mechanism that they themselves adopted through language that does not say so. Given the plenary legislative authority of the people and the legislature, and the absence of a clear constitutional prohibition, the Court should not conclude otherwise.”

Seeing how the Court has had 18 years (since I-601 in 1993) and multiple opportunities to rule on 2/3 but has refused to do so there is no guarantee the latest ploy to gain legal standing will work.

As evident by the latest legal challenge, however, this issue needs to finally be put to rest. The only sure way to end this debate once and for all is for voters to have the opportunity to vote on a constitutional amendment.

Lawmakers opposed to this policy could simply use their talking points from 2005 when they placed a constitutional amendment on the ballot to reduce the vote threshold needed for voter approved school levies. At the time several lawmakers said they didn’t necessarily support the policy but the voters should have the opportunity to weigh in. Seeing how the voters have already weighed in four times for the 2/3 vote requirement for tax increases it would be better to let them resolve the debate instead of hoping for a judicial hailmary.

Of the sixteen states with supermajority tax restrictions, only Washington’s is statutory.

It is time to put all the cards on the table and let the voters decide with a constitutional amendment in a winner take all pot – not try to deal from the bottom of the deck with the ever elusive judicial card.


[Reprinted from the Washington Policy Center blog]

The State’s 2011-13 Budget in Graphic Detail

Though it took a special session to finish its work on the 2011-13 budget, the legislature took positive steps this year to put the state on a more sustainable budget path. Despite progress, however, an inadequate reserve fund coupled with ongoing economic uncertainty and projected future spending pressure leaves the state’s budget outlook on tenuous ground highlighting the need for additional structural reforms and spending restraint.

While the discussion focused on spending cuts during the 2011 Legislative Session, state spending is projected to increase both for “Total Budgeted” spending and the “Near General Fund State” (NGFS). Although this increase in spending for the NGFS follows a 2009-11 budget cycle that saw a significant decrease in spending, Total Budgeted spending has not decreased since the onset of the “great recession.” Total Budgeted spending includes the transportation, capital and operating budgets including federal funds and grants. Near General Fund State is the account that principally supports the operation of state government and is funded primarily by state sales, property, and business and occupation taxes.

Total Budgeted spending is set to increase $3.2 billion for 2011-13. This builds on increases of $2.4 billion for 2009-11, $8 billion for 2007-09 and $7 billion for 2005-07. Since 1999-01, Total Budgeted spending has increased 66 percent.

Near General Fund State spending is set to increase $1.7 billion for 2011-13. This follows a decrease of $2.3 billion for 2009-11 and increases of $2.4 billion for 2007-09 and $4.6 billion for 2005-07. Since 1999-01, NGFS spending has increased 43 percent.

After years of flat or declining revenue, state revenues are projected to grow again by $3.5 billion for 2011-13. This follows a decrease of $1.8 billion for 2009-11 and increases of $88 million for 2007-09 and $4.8 billion for 2005-07. Since 1999-01, state revenues have increased 41 percent.

State government employment is projected to decrease by 1,578 full-time equivalent (FTE) employees for 2011-13. This is down 4,989 from the peak of 111,984 FTEs in 2007-09. Since 1999-01, FTEs have increased 6 percent.

One of the major positive developments this year was at the time of its adoption, the 2011-13 budget was the first budget since 1997 that spent less than forecasted revenue.

It is important to note lawmakers accomplished this “Budgeting 101” feat of spending within the revenue forecast without raising general taxes. This primarily occurred as a result of voters framing the budget debate last November by rejecting Initiative 1098 (creation of a high earners income tax) and adopting Initiative 1107 (repeal of various tax increases) and Initiative 1053 (restoring the two-thirds vote requirement for tax increases). The budget does, however, rely on $517 million in fee increases. The vast majority of these fee increases are for higher education tuition ($369 million).

Unfortunately lawmakers did not leave a big enough reserve which became apparent the day after the budget was signed by the governor when most of the ending fund balance was wiped out by the June revenue forecast – leaving only $163 million in total reserves for 2011-13 or less than 0.5% of spending (prior to the June 2011 forecast there was $723 million in total reserves or 2.3% of spending). This scant remaining reserve increases the possibility of a special session being necessary later this year should the economic outlook worsen.

Though challenges remain, the legislature took important steps this year by limiting spending to within the state’s revenue forecast. The failure to leave an adequate reserve coupled with the ongoing economic uncertainty, however, means additional structural reforms and spending restraint will continue to be necessary as the state recovers from the impact of past overspending combined with the “great recession,” and embraces the path of sustainable budgeting.

For additional details on the 2011-13 budget and the structural reforms still needed, here is our new publication: “A Review of Washington State’s 2011-13 Budget and Recommendations for Structural Reform


[Reprinted from the Washington Policy blog.]

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