Paring back the size of government is proving to be more challenging than imagined.
Last year the Legislature cut just 18 boards, out of more than 400 advisory boards and commissions spread throughout state government. This year, Gov. Chris Gregoire targeted 78 boards and commissions for elimination. The House has pared that back to 50 and the Senate’s most recent target was 41.
Even if those modest proposals are adopted, lawmakers and Gov. Chris Gregoire will have a hard time convincing voters that they have overhauled and streamlined state government. It’s time for an outside group to tackle the politically charged issue of government reorganization, similar to what the base-closure commission has been able to accomplish on the national level.
Early in the 2009 session, Gregoire said the state’s $9 billion budget shortfall meant state government was going to have to be transformed — to be leaner and more cost effective. “State government needs to rethink the way we deliver programs and services throughout the state, and we are doing just that,” Gregoire promised. “We have evaluated hundreds of ideas from citizens, state employees, and business and government leaders to develop both short- and long-term changes. ... There is much work ahead. ... This is not about short-term thinking — it is about changing the way we do business for the long term.”
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Gregoire outlined three goals:
• Reduce the size of government.
• Deliver 21st century customer service.
• Streamline state agencies and operations to maximize the effect of limited dollars.
She said up front that revamping state government and eliminating boards and commissions — some of which had not met for years — was going to gore some “sacred cows.”
Boy, was that prophetic.
The governor eliminated 17 boards by executive order in December after cutting more than 50 at the beginning of the year. But of more than 100 she asked the Legislature to end last year, lawmakers complied on just 18.
What a disappointment.
Faced with another $2.8 billion budget shortfall, Gregoire entered this year’s legislative session with a request to eliminate 78 boards and commissions. House and Senate legislative proposals have whittled that number away. House members have targeted 50 boards for elimination, the Senate’s target is 41. Another 53 advisory committees would stay alive but would be suspended for two years.
Sen. Jim Kastama, D-Puyallup, says legislators are only nibbling around the edges of inefficiency and waste.
“I think that we have yet to really do the broad government reforms that need to go in place,” Kastama said. Kastama is correct when he says a broader look at the state budget is needed. He acknowledges the budget is stocked with items protected by interest groups and by lawmakers who want to keep spending in their own districts. One significant bill that created quite a buzz in the capital city this month was Rep. Mike Armstrong’s measure to break up the state’s largest agency — the monolithic Department of Social and Health Services into four separate agencies. Armstrong, a Republican from Wenatchee, bolstered his case by citing reports of deaths of children under state control. The 20,000-employee agency has succumbed to bureaucracy and lost its focus, Armstrong argued.
Legislative watchers were shocked when Armstrong’s proposal, House Bill 2197, passed out of the House State Government Committee on a unanimous vote. The bill passed the House Committee on Health & Human Services Appropriations but by the time it was approved by the House Ways and Means Committee had been watered down substantially. The substitute bill restructures, rather than abolishes, DSHS so that it provides common administrative functions to the four new client service-based agencies.
Interestingly enough, the governor is going in the opposite direction. She’s proposing merging small agencies into larger ones.
It’s clear that there is no political will to pursue substantive government reform efforts. As a result, as Sen. Rodney Tom, D-Medina, says, “If this is our idea of reform, the public’s not going to buy it.”
That’s why we like Kastama’s proposal to take this huge undertaking out of the hands of lawmakers. The Puyallup Democrat says a panel of elder statesmen should be convened to make recommendations for government reform that lawmakers must either vote up or down — without changes. Kastama’s proposal is modeled after the Pentagon’s base-closing commission which has taken the politics out of difficult base-closing decisions across the country.
Under Kastama’s plan for state government, the elder statesmen would comb the state budget for inefficiency. He hopes to add his proposal to this year’s budget before leaving Olympia next month.
The idea has merit.
Absent the Kastama plan or something similar, lawmakers will continue to nibble around the edges of inefficiency and waste without making substantive changes in state government operations.