Gov. Chris Gregoire started this year's legislative session with an ambitious agenda to overhaul state government and trim 21 state agencies down to nine.
With the regular session a little more than halfway over, lawmakers have bills based on the governor’s consolidation ideas for natural-resource agencies, education, civil rights and back-office services, but most of them have faced tough opposition and substantial amendments since they were introduced.
“We’re pushing these still,” said Jim Justin, the governor’s legislative director, referring to Gregoire’s agency-consolidation proposals. “I think that as the Legislature grapples with the tough budget decisions they will have over the next couple of months, they’ll look closer at these ideas, too.”
When she proposed her biennial budget, the governor included a plan for merging natural-resource agencies, setting up an Office of Civil Rights and combining back-office agencies including information technology, printing and others, changes she estimated would save about $22 million over two years.
Later, she proposed creating a state Education Department to oversee preschool- through college-level instruction.
The bills that have been introduced to carry out all four of the governor’s proposals in their current form probably would save about $15 million in the 2011-13 biennium, according to the most recent numbers from the Office of Financial Management. The state’s budget shortfall for that period is about $4.6 billion.
Because the consolidation bills are budget-related, they will get more time for consideration than policy bills in the Legislature. Those must get a floor vote by the end of the day Monday to move forward.
One of the most controversial proposals the governor introduced this year was the Education Department, an idea Gregoire said was necessary to help students make it through every level of the state education system. So far, though, the superintendent of public instruction and lawmakers in the House have disagreed.
“We have to get serious about reform,” said Gregoire in a news conference Wednesday to urge lawmakers to act on her Education Department proposal. “Today we have eight education agencies and 14 major strategic plans – plenty of cracks for our kids to fall through, and they do.”
Senate Bill 5639, which is currently in the Ways and Means Committee, would set up an Education Department, but lawmakers have amended the measure to remove higher education from the department’s authority – which, some say, would defeat the purpose of the proposal.
Meanwhile, the House passed House Bill 1849, an alternative to the governor’s proposal by Rep. Kathy Haigh, in a 64-32 vote Wednesday. The bill would set up a 17-member education council to study education governance and submit a report to the Legislature.
Haigh, a Democrat from Shelton, said she agreed with the governor’s goals in setting up an Education Department, but she didn’t think that approach had support in the House, and she wasn’t sure the state needed a new department to help fill the gaps in the education system.
“We may have the same outcome that the governor was looking for, but I’m looking at a much more collaborative way of getting there,” Haigh said of her bill. “I’d rather do it right than shove it through and say, ‘Oh, that didn’t work.’”
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Randy Dorn opposed the governor’s idea when she proposed it in January because it would put the superintendent, who is elected, under the authority of an appointed secretary.
He said he was more supportive of Haigh’s idea to set up a council, but, ultimately, he thought better funding for the education system was the only real way to improve it.
“The main thing that’s going to make a difference in kids’ lives is not the governor’s bill but the resources we put into education,” he said. “We have all these legislators talking about these policy bills, and what we should be doing is talking about the budget.”
In February, Gregoire requested House Joint Resolution 4220, a bill that would have amended the state constitution to eliminate the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction. That proposal never made it out of committee.
Gregoire’s plan to merge the state’s natural-resource agencies also has drawn criticism, especially from hunters and fishermen who opposed the part of the measure that would take authority away from the Fish and Wildlife Commission and give it to the governor.
After having a public hearing on the idea in February, legislators changed the governor’s request bill, Senate Bill 5669, to take some agencies out of the merger and give rule-making authority back to the commission.
The most recent version of the bill would consolidate the Fish and Wildlife Department, the Parks and Recreation Commission, the Recreation and Conservation Office and the Department of Natural Resources law enforcement into a new Department of Fish, Wildlife and Recreation.
Ed Owens, a lobbyist for hunting and fishing groups in the state, said he doubted the bill would make it through the House based on discussions he’d had with lawmakers, adding that his clients had “opinions all over the map” on the current version.
One thing hunters and fishermen could agree on at this point, he said, was that merging parks with fish and wildlife was a bad idea.
“The whole park system is a deep black hole,” Owens said. “There’s concern that parks will suck up all the resources needed to manage fish and wildlife.”
The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Kevin Ranker, D-San Juan Island, said he was working with other legislators to make some changes to the measure, but he was confident some sort of natural-resources consolidation bill would move forward in the Senate.
The governor’s other two proposals – consolidating several minority-affairs agencies into a new state Office of Civil Rights and merging the General Administration Department, the state printer and parts of other state agencies into a new Department of Enterprise Services – also have bills in House and Senate committees.
The Department of Enterprise Services bill, House Bill 1720, is awaiting a vote in the House Ways and Means Committee. Although it has drawn less attention than the other ideas, it promises to save the most money.
According to the bill’s fiscal note, it would save about $11 million over the 2011-13 biennium.
One point of controversy over the proposal is whether the state printer should be eliminated; Senate Bill 5523, which the Rules Committee put on the Senate Floor calendar Wednesday, would do away with the printer and require state government to rely on the private sector for printing services.
The Office of Civil Rights bill, Senate Bill 5557, had a committee hearing in February in the Senate Government Operations, Tribal Relations and Elections Committee.
During the hearing, representatives from some minority groups, including the Latino Civic Alliance, the National Association of Hispanic Workers and the King County Asian Pacific Islander Coalition, argued that the proposal could create another layer of bureaucracy that would make state government less accessible to ethnic groups.
The bill was scheduled for a committee vote Feb. 17, but lawmakers did not take action on the measure.
Though the future of the governor’s proposals remains uncertain, Justin said, they have started a discussion in the Legislature about the tough budget decisions ahead.
“I think the Legislature understands that the revenues that we’re going to receive as a state government are going to be at a lower level and they’re going to be there for some time, and we need to work smarter,” Justin said.
Katie Schmidt: 360-786-1826 firstname.lastname@example.org