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Originally published April 9, 2013 at 4:09 PM | Page modified April 9, 2013 at 4:09 PM

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Editorial: Reform the writing of fiscal notes in Washington state Legislature

Putting a price tag on bills in Olympia is too often subject to guesswork and political gamesmanship. Reforming the fiscal-note process is a step toward more transparent governance.

Seattle Times Editorial

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THE bureaucratic art of putting an official price tag on a proposal before the Legislature is a mix of guesswork and number-crunching.

It is also subjected to political gamesmanship, in part because the price tag is often estimated by the state agency required to implement the law, should it pass.

Year after year, in administration after administration, well-crafted proposals are slapped with cost estimates — called fiscal notes — so high the bills become lead balloons. On the revenue side, tax cuts are estimated solely on the amount of lost state revenue, not on their economic impact.

Usually they’re arrived at in good faith. But errant fiscal notes can also be a backdoor method for a state agency, or the state Office of Financial Management, which vets fiscal notes, to kill an idea.

Take, for example, House Bill 1566, intended to reduce the astonishing 46 percent school-dropout rate for foster children. A simple change to a computer system was priced at $150,000. And the “proactive support” for foster kids in the school system was priced at $17.5 million. After pushback from its prime sponsor, Rep. Reuven Carlyle, D-Seattle, an altered version was priced at $184,272.

This is an old issue in Olympia, a frustration shared by lawmakers of both parties and by nonpartisan staff.

The Senate budget took a step forward, requiring a study of the “quality and accuracy” of the fiscal-note process. Hopefully, such a study will consider consolidating existing nonpartisan Legislative budget staff into a single office, one which would take over the research, calculation and writing of fiscal notes. That is the approach used in other states, including California, and by the federal government.

A more transparent fiscal-note procedure could account for unintended costs of a proposal, such as increased jail costs when mental-health care is whacked. It would also provide dynamic estimates for tax polices, focusing on economic effects as well as lost state revenue.

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