What began with a clarion call by the governor to reform state government by eliminating hundreds of boards and commissions, ended with a whimper when state lawmakers slinked out of town after passing a watered-down bill that axes a mere 18 advisory groups.
As for the rhetoric about reforming the rest of state government – lawmakers earn a failing grade.
Going into the 2009 legislative session, Gov. Chris Gregoire listed government reform as one of four top goals.
In her Jan. 14 inaugural speech before the House and Senate, Gregoire said, “The time has come to put our sacred cows out to pasture forever. One thing we have to do together is reform state government to bring it into the 21st century, and soon. At very basic levels, businesses are struggling to reform, to change the way they do business because they simply must to survive. Government must do the same. This is our chance to reform state government to make it a more nimble and relevant partner in a new state economy.”
The governor pointed to a December report – the first real accounting – that listed 470 boards and commissions serving in largely advisory rolls across state government.
“Is there anybody in this chamber, or this state, who believes we need any more than half of 470 boards and commissions to serve the people of Washington? There are almost 60 involved with the Department of Social and Health Services alone,” Gregoire said, “And that’s not the only issue we face. For instance, we have three agencies managing natural resources, each with its own scientist standing in the same Washington stream. We need to reform, and we will.”
But the sacred cows survived the legislative session – pretty much unscathed.
A year ago, no one in state government kept a comprehensive list of advisory boards and commissions. Until the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Committee developed a list for its December report to the Legislature, no one could tell taxpayers precisely how many state boards and commissions exist.
Finally there was the list – 470 boards and commission.
The governor eliminated 55 with an executive order and asked lawmakers to ax another 100.
But every board and commission has a constituency and lawmakers got an earful every time they suggested getting rid of an advisory group. Rep. Sam Hunt, D-Olympia, conducted a five-hour public hearing on one bill to eliminate boards and commissions.
Before slipping out of town, lawmakers mustered enough votes to pass Senate Bill 5995 which got rid of a measly 18 boards and commissions. In separate bills, lawmakers merged two agricultural advisory commissions into one and combined the cemetery and funeral home boards into a single entity.
The grand legislative total, then, was a mere 20 boards and commissions eliminated.
What a weak and ineffective effort on the part of lawmakers.
“They didn’t go far enough,” said Robin Arnold-Williams, the governor’s policy adviser. “But it’s better than the zero we normally get.”
So if they failed so miserably on boards and commissions, surely lawmakers succeeded in their other efforts to reform state government – right?
The three agencies managing natural resources that the governor mentioned in her inaugural address still are intact. There is a study to look at possible merger, but it’s only a study, nothing definite.
And there’s another study to see whether the Lottery Commission, Gambling Commission, Liquor Control Board and Horse Racing Commission might be consolidated.
And taxpayers are going to pay to study what functions in the new Department of Commerce might be transferred to other agencies.
Study, study, study – but not much action.
Two agencies, the Department of Retirement Systems and the Health Care Authority are on a merger track and the Legislature did approve the closure of 25 Department of Licensing driver license offices.
A few small salmon programs have been put under one office and the fuel tax program was shifted from Licensing to Revenue.
But that’s a paltry list when compared with the rhetoric of substantive government reform. Apparently bringing state government into the 21st century will have to wait.
Is it any wonder that members of the public have so little trust and faith in their leaders?