OLYMPIA — The state attorney general's office will weigh in on a potential fight between the Legislature and the Executive branch over the meaning of three little words: “within available funds.”
Those three words appear twice in a 2005 statute that requires state agencies to develop “quality management systems” to help figure out ways to do their jobs better. Most agencies have never done such assessments because the deadlines were delayed and then the recession hit and budgets tightened.
This year, the governor's office asked for another delay. The Legislature said no, but it also didn't set aside any extra money for the assessments. Last month, Marty Brown, director of the Office of Financial Management, told agency leaders not to perform the quality management assessments because after billions of dollars of budget cuts, the funds aren't available.
“The intent was, if you had the money you would do this; if you didn't, you wouldn't,” Brown said Thursday.
In the statute's three paragraphs that call for the development of quality management systems, the first two contain the words “within available funds.” The third paragrah does not add that caveat.
Two legislative Democrats, Rep. Mark Miloscia of Federal Way and Sen. Jim Kastama of Puyallup, who are running respectively for state auditor and secretary of state, are challenging the order to drop the quality assessments. They sent a letter to Gov. Chris Gregoire, objecting to Brown's directive to the agencies, and a separate letter to the attorney general's office, asking for an opinion on whether the assessments have to be done.
“They're getting rid of accountability,” Miloscia said in an interview Thursday.
Not so, says Brown. The state has other programs to improve performance, such as the Lean system that private businesses use to look for waste and the Government Management Accountability Project.
But those look at different things, Miloscia said. If a governor can ignore this law that requires state agencies to do something, he or she could ignore other laws requiring other actions. He drafted the legislation in 2005 and contends it says “within available funds” because the Legislature never intended to give the agencies extra money for the assessments. They'd have to find ways to pay for it within the budgets they had.
In the past, the Legislature approved delays requested by Gregoire. This year, it dropped the requested delay from the final budget deal that passed on the last day of the special session. But it didn't come up with any extra money, and it didn't repeal the words “within available funds” from the existing law.
Deputy Solicitor General Jeffrey Even said he would research the question and come up with an informal opinion about the legal meaning of those words. That analysis typically takes about two months, he said, so it should be available by mid August.