NPI's Cascadia Advocate

Offering commentary and analysis from Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's uplifting perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Wednesday, June 28th, 2017

Budgets need scrutiny: State Legislature’s lack of fiscal transparency is unacceptable

Yes­ter­day, with­out fan­fare, Gov­er­nor Jay Inslee’s office announced that the major­i­ty cau­cus­es of the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives and the Sen­ate had reached agree­ment (“in prin­ci­ple”, at least) on a go-home bud­get deal that would avert a state gov­ern­ment shut­down fol­low­ing the end of the day on Fri­day, June 30th, the last day of the cur­rent 2015–2017 fis­cal biennium.

The details are still being ham­mered out, and so it’s still not yet known what is actu­al­ly in the agree­ment. Sup­pos­ed­ly, all will be revealed tomor­row, late in the day (it was orig­i­nal­ly going to be noon), just hours before the bien­ni­um ends and the two cham­bers vote on the deal their major­i­ty cau­cus­es nego­ti­at­ed and agreed to.

There won’t be time for pub­lic hear­ings on the bud­get or for the input of local gov­ern­ments, busi­ness­es, unions, advo­ca­cy groups, and pub­lic inter­est orga­ni­za­tions to be heard and con­sid­ered pri­or to its adoption.

This is no way to run a state. We share the frus­tra­tion of jour­nal­ists, edi­to­r­i­al boards, fel­low activists, and even some law­mak­ers them­selves that the Leg­is­la­ture’s lack of fis­cal trans­paren­cy and pro­cliv­i­ty to pro­cras­ti­na­tion (which has got­ten much worse since 2012) is unac­cept­able and detri­men­tal to the state’s well-being.

The peo­ple of Wash­ing­ton — or at least those inter­est­ed in mon­i­tor­ing the work of their rep­re­sen­ta­tives — will have less than a day and a half to exam­ine the bud­get that all sev­en mil­lion plus of us will have to live with start­ing this Sat­ur­day. That is not a large enough win­dow to per­mit any sub­stan­tive or thought­ful analysis.

As one of my for­mer state rep­re­sen­ta­tives points out:

Toby Nixon, the pres­i­dent of the Wash­ing­ton Coali­tion for Open Gov­ern­ment, said the short time line makes it “just impos­si­ble to do any kind of mean­ing­ful review.”

That could lead to mis­takes that some­one out­side the for­mal process might ordi­nar­i­ly catch and pre­vents the pub­lic from get­ting a rea­son­able amount of time to weigh in through phone calls, emails and advo­ca­cy, Nixon said.

Nixon once served in the state House and is cur­rent­ly a mem­ber of the Kirk­land City Council.

Such review might not change large swaths of the bud­get, but scruti­ny could eas­i­ly high­light errors or push small changes, he said.

“Basi­cal­ly the lead­er­ship or the bud­get nego­tia­tors are just ask­ing peo­ple to trust that they got it right,” Nixon said.

Local gov­ern­ments (cities, coun­ties, school dis­tricts) are in the same boat:

Dan Steele, lob­by­ist for the Wash­ing­ton Asso­ci­a­tion of School Admin­is­tra­tors, said it’s con­cern­ing that the state’s 295 school dis­tricts won’t have much time to review how law­mak­ers’ school-fund­ing over­haul would affect them.

Steele said school dis­trict offi­cials don’t think they’ll get an advance look at the pol­i­cy changes that are designed to cor­rect a school-fund­ing cri­sis that has been 40 years in the making.

“If there’s some­thing wrong with it, there’s no time for them to go back and change it,” he said.

“Even if there’s some­thing screwy, I think the skids are greased and they’re going to roll it out and pass it quick­ly and be done.”

The Leg­is­la­ture has had ample time to craft and argue over a bud­get to keep the state’s vital pub­lic ser­vices fund­ed and open, but most of that time has been fool­ish­ly squan­dered due to the intran­si­gence of the Sen­ate Repub­li­cans, who delib­er­ate­ly refused to nego­ti­ate until the threat of a gov­ern­ment shut­down was very near, hav­ing cal­cu­lat­ed that run­ning out the clock would serve their interests.

Such games­man­ship has become intolerable.

It is very pos­si­ble that Democ­rats will soon run the Wash­ing­ton State Sen­ate; the par­ty needs to flip just one-Repub­li­can held seat in this year’s spe­cial elec­tions and it’ll have a real major­i­ty again for the first time in five years. But even if that hap­pens, reforms need to be insti­tut­ed to pre­vent this kind of sit­u­a­tion from occur­ring again.

State Sen­a­tor Reuven Car­lyle seems to under­stand the need for reforms and the frus­tra­tion that so many of us are feel­ing. He wrote yes­ter­day:

We appear to be mov­ing toward a state bud­get and the largest reform of edu­ca­tion finance in our state’s 128 year his­to­ry. Regard­less of how it unfolds, I’m grate­ful for the enor­mous ded­i­ca­tion of bud­get writ­ers work­ing 7x24 for a respon­si­ble agree­ment. And yet out­side of pol­i­tics, on a deep­er, more struc­tur­al and insti­tu­tion­al lev­el, we should all be unset­tled that we have come with­in days of for­mal floor votes and yet have no pub­lic bill, no pub­lic data, no pub­lic analy­sis and no vis­i­bil­i­ty into the his­toric impli­ca­tions on tax­pay­ers and our 295 school dis­tricts serv­ing 1.1 mil­lion stu­dents. We are bet­ter than this as a state.

Yes, we are. It is painful­ly appar­ent that we need to fun­da­men­tal­ly change the way our Leg­is­la­ture devel­ops bud­gets. For inspi­ra­tion, we should con­sid­er the prac­tices of oth­er states. For instance, here’s how it works in New Hamp­shire, as relat­ed by for­mer Wash­ing­ton State Rep­re­sen­ta­tive Bren­dan Williams:

Recent­ly I had occa­sion to wit­ness the bien­ni­al bud­get process, rec­on­cil­ing dif­fer­ences between the House and Sen­ate, for the 165th ses­sion of the New Hamp­shire Gen­er­al Court.

In the indif­fer­ent air-con­di­tion­ing of the 128-year-old Leg­isla­tive Office Build­ing in Con­cord, as tem­per­a­ture out­side soared into the 90s, the Bud­get Com­mit­tee of Con­fer­ence, begin­ning on a Mon­day, met pub­licly late into the night on suc­ces­sive days, wrap­ping up its work by Wednes­day afternoon.

Both minor­i­ty Democ­rats and major­i­ty Repub­li­cans were rep­re­sent­ed on the com­mit­tee and had the oppor­tu­ni­ty to be heard, and offer amend­ments, as the com­mit­tee went through the bud­get line-by-line. It is an open process that nev­er changes, regard­less of which par­ties are in con­trol. Leg­is­la­tors, paid only $200 for each two-year term with no “per diem” allowance, have no incen­tive to drag it out.

The New Hamp­shire mod­el may not be right for us. But the process we have is obvi­ous­ly not serv­ing us well. It is indefensible.

Insti­tu­tions of all sizes and kinds occa­sion­al­ly need the equiv­a­lent of a tune-up in order to work prop­er­ly. Our Leg­is­la­ture needs a process tune-up so that it can pro­duce bet­ter bud­gets for the mil­lions of peo­ple that it was elect­ed to serve.

It is worth remem­ber­ing that the House and Sen­ate are already in the prac­tice of adopt­ing rules for the con­sid­er­a­tion of most bills, par­tic­u­lar­ly pol­i­cy bills, which impose dead­lines known as cut­offs for the advance­ment of legislation.

Cut­offs aren’t absolute, but they pro­vide struc­ture to the leg­isla­tive ses­sion and mit­i­gate the human ten­den­cy to procrastinate.

While our exist­ing sys­tem of cut­offs works well in many respects, it has not been a recipe for trans­par­ent, orga­nized bud­get­ing. We need to fig­ure out what that recipe is, and insti­tute reforms to ensure that we as a peo­ple and our non-leg­isla­tive insti­tu­tions (cities, school dis­tricts, busi­ness­es, non­prof­its, unions, etc.) can effec­tive­ly scru­ti­nize the work of our elect­ed representatives.

As RCW 42.56.030 mem­o­rably declares:

The peo­ple of this state do not yield their sov­er­eign­ty to the agen­cies that 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 main­tain con­trol over the instru­ments that they have cre­at­ed. This chap­ter shall be lib­er­al­ly con­strued and its exemp­tions nar­row­ly con­strued to pro­mote this pub­lic pol­i­cy and to assure that the pub­lic inter­est will be ful­ly pro­tect­ed. In the event of con­flict between the pro­vi­sions of this chap­ter and any oth­er act, the pro­vi­sions of this chap­ter shall govern.

Empha­sis is mine. This is the con­struc­tion clause of our Pub­lic Records Act, which the Leg­is­la­ture is iron­i­cal­ly exempt from (at least in part). Nev­er­the­less, the sen­ti­ment expressed here is the sen­ti­ment that needs to guide the reforms made to ensure future bud­gets are craft­ed trans­par­ent­ly and with pub­lic input.

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