State Workers

Critics seek changes to agency reorganization

Gov. Chris Gregoire's proposal to revamp the state Commerce Department is running into concerns from housing advocates and other community advocates, and a reform bill now is likely to be amended before it is voted on in a House committee next week.

A number of groups want to see housing and community-development programs kept inside Commerce as part of a Building Communities Division. Others are concerned about transferring energy-facility site approvals to the state utility-regulating agency, and still others worry about cuts proposed to dispute-resolution programs.

“We understand there are concerns about nearly every single one of these programs we want to move,” Commerce director Rogers Weed told the House Community and Economic Development and Trade Committee on Wednesday. “Change is hard.’’

Weed is trying to eliminate or transfer 26 of the agency’s 132 programs into other agencies, including moving three housing programs for youths and the mentally ill to the Department of Social and Health Services. His overriding goal: putting a “laser focus” on jobs creation and moving out agency chores that don’t further that goal.

But Democratic Rep. Phyllis Gutierrez Kenney, who sponsored House Bill 2658 and served as chairwoman of the hearing, wants to keep housing and some other support for community-based programs in a Building Communities Division inside Commerce. That is setting up a possible fight with the governor over the direction of reform.

“I think there is a conflict here between what the governor is proposing and what the advocates want to see. It is early in the session. … The governor absolutely is not saying ‘no way,’” said Kari Burrell, a policy adviser to the governor on human services and housing issues. “The governor’s real concern here is (that) we need to have a stronger focus at the state level on economic development and jobs creation, and she is looking at Commerce to do that.”

Kenney intends to vote the bill out of her committee Wednesday or Thursday. She expects changes will be made to the bill, and she is waiting for clarification of a fiscal analysis to see how much money the changes at Commerce might save the state, if any.

Early indications are that the changes would be “a wash,” according to staff at the Office of Financial Management. And there could be costs if lawmakers decide to restore $266,000 for a “new Americans” program and $500,000 for a dispute-resolution program, both of which are slated to sunset in 2011 under the governor’s proposal, one OFM staffer said.

But Gregoire’s reorganization plan is only one piece of a bigger plan to save $16 million through eliminating nearly 80 more boards and commissions, eliminating some duplication of work by natural-resource agencies and changing how information-services technology and e-mail are purchased.

Among agencies and services Weed wants to move out: public health assistance and community mobilization efforts to the Department of Health; the Energy Facilities Site Evaluation Council to the Utilities and Transportation Commission; the Building Codes Council to Labor and Industries; and the long-term-care ombudsman to the Office of Financial Management.

Those moves also put Weed in conflict with House Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle. Chopp supports Kenney’s bid to cluster housing programs in a Building Communities Division inside Commerce.

Advocates for the homeless, low-income housing, dispute-resolution, foster care and other community programs testified Wednesday in favor of doing just that. They included Lonnie Johns-Brown, who represents sexual-assault-response programs, and Seth Dawson, representing the Washington State Coalition for the Homeless.

“We are not a good fit at the huge Department of Social and Health Services,’’ Johns-Brown said.

Republican Rep. Ed Orcutt of Kalama had concerns about moving the building code agency to Labor and Industries, saying it had a reputation for not being efficient on worker compensation. He suggested moving it to General Administration, which already handles a program for architects and engineers.

But Weed said the thought was that Labor and Industries already deals with code enforcement.

Weed also wants more of an agency role in guiding the state’s energy policy, which is drawing concerns in other quarters. He says the state needs a policy to maintain its competitive edge through low energy costs.

Chris McCabe of the Association of Washington Business and a representative of the Washington Economic Development Association both supported the new jobs-creation focus for the overall agency. But McCabe said elements of the proposed energy strategy – which are aimed at reducing dependence on fossil fuels and promoting biofuels and transportation alternatives – are premature, because they “presuppose” the goals that Commerce could develop through talking to utilities and other stakeholders.

Representatives of two power companies, Puget Sound Energy and Pacificorp, questioned the move of the energy-facilities agency. One urged that the utilities commission and siting board be kept fully independent.

Brad Shannon: 360-753-1688