State should change how it does business, not simply cut programs
Spending cuts are necessary given Washington's budget crisis, but more systemic change is needed. Guest columnist Don Brunell of the Association of Washington Business suggests five such systemic changes to how the state does business.
Special to The Times
LAST November, Washington voters sent a strong message to state lawmakers when they rejected an income tax and reinstated the two-thirds requirement to raise taxes. The message: Do as we are doing — make do with less. Cut spending rather than raise taxes.
Gov. Chris Gregoire says she has gotten the message. Facing a projected $4.6 billion budget deficit in the next biennium, the governor has proposed $3 billion in cuts to the 2011-2013 budget.
Clearly unhappy with her difficult choices, the governor has proposed a budget that would eliminate the state's Basic Health Plan, delay two voter-backed education initiatives, cut K-12 education programs and slash state support for higher education.
In addition, the governor proposes to consolidate 21 state agencies into nine and eliminate 36 state commissions to save an estimated $30 million over the next two years. Such streamlining of state government is welcome, if late in coming.
In 2003, former Gov. Gary Locke implemented a process called Priorities of Government (POG), which prioritized state programs and services. The fact is, the state cannot — and should not — do everything. We must take a hard look at state programs and retain only the most vital services. POG helped make those hard choices before, and it should be reinstated to help guide lawmakers' decisions on budget cuts.
Cutting current programs is just the start. To prevent a similar train wreck in the future, the governor, state lawmakers and agency directors need to rethink the way the state operates.
An obvious example is the state printing office. Lawmakers have long bandied about the idea of privatizing this function. According to The Spokesman-Review, the state printing office, founded in 1854, employs 100 state workers. But most printing jobs can be done on agency printers and bigger jobs should be outsourced to private print shops.
While the budget for the print shop is relatively small, it illustrates an important principle: Just because we've always done something doesn't mean we should continue. This budget crisis provides lawmakers — and taxpayers — with an opportunity to take a hard look at the very structure of state government.
Unfortunately, lawmakers resist such changes until the last possible minute. And when a financial crisis finally hits, it makes the necessary cuts seem even more painful. But there are systemic changes the governor and state legislators can make to get spending under control.
• First, we must reduce or eliminate existing programs and lawmakers should not add any new ones. In Gov. Gregoire's first term, the state budget increased 31 percent with higher salaries, richer benefits, 6,100 new state workers, new programs and even a new state agency. In today's economy, taxpayers simply cannot afford it.
• Second, legislators should also resist raiding dedicated accounts set up by specific taxes to fund specific programs, such as hazardous-waste cleanup. Robbing Peter to pay Paul by moving money around and deferring payments doesn't solve our long-term problems.
• Third, state lawmakers should also find more innovative ways to provide public services. For example, the state should contract out services to the private sector when it is more efficient and cost-effective to do so, ensuring proper oversight and quality controls. To make that happen, lawmakers will have to change state law to remove contracting out from the collective-bargaining statute.
• Fourth, Olympia needs to change collective-bargaining agreements with public employees. Government workers must sacrifice to the same degree as private-sector employees. So far, that hasn't happened. Originally, the governor proposed increasing the health insurance co-pay for premiums from 12 percent to 26 but ultimately announced it would be 15 percent. Most private-sector workers pay 25 percent or more.
• Fifth, shorten permitting time, eliminate duplicative regulations and reduce costs for private-sector employers. Eliminating those unnecessary costs will free employers to create jobs, which will restore economic vitality and provide more state tax revenues.
None of this will be easy, but if lawmakers take this opportunity to make real changes in the way the state does business, we will all be better off in the long run.Don Brunell is the president of the Association of Washington Business, Washington state's largest and oldest statewide business association.