When it comes to government, Gary Locke calls himself a streamliner and a downsizer.
But Locke, a Democratic frontrunner in the governor’s race, presided over nightmare cost overruns on repairs of the Kingdome as King County executive.
And as chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, Locke helped write a state budget for the 1993-95 biennium that raised taxes $1.1 billion, increased spending and added state employees.
One Locke campaign brochure says, “His accomplishments include cutting administrative staff in most state programs by 15 percent in 1993.”
In a more in-depth briefing paper, Locke says at the same time he increased state employment to expand higher education teaching staff, improve child support collections, and open new prisons.
That’s still not the whole story.
In his literature, he doesn’t mention state government grew by 1,275 full-time jobs in the 1993-95 budget; taxes, fees, and tuition were hiked, and spending grew by 7 percent to more than $16 billion.
Most people wouldn’t call that streamlining or downsizing.
Locke says: “I wasn’t saying I was cutting employment, but administrative staff by 15 percent. I’ve always taken great pains to point that out.”
That’s Locke’s style. He uses his extensive knowledge of state government to help him finesse his explanations.
Now the state faces a budget surplus and Locke says as governor he would support targeted tax cuts to generate jobs.
Critics say Locke sometimes reinvents history.
Currently, Locke is enmeshed in a controversy over just what he promised billionaire Paul Allen last March when Allen showed interest in buying the Seattle Seahawks.
Locke called a news conference last month to announce a series of conditions he will require on any stadium deal he would strike with Allen, including terms for shortening the Seahawks’ lease at the county-owned Kingdome.
Bob Whitsitt, Allen’s representative, said at his own news conference that Locke agreed in March to shorten the stadium’s lease with no conditions if Allen bought the team.
Allen has spent an estimated $20 million for an option to buy the Seahawks. At the news conference, Whitsitt said if Locke had set those terms earlier this year, Allen wouldn’t have gone ahead with the option to buy.
Republican King County Councilman Peter von Reichbauer says, “I was there. Gary is rewriting history. There were no conditions.”
Locke says he did insist on some conditions, including a requirement the county could not, under any circumstances, lose money on Seahawk football at the Kingdome.
He says the rest of the conversation was in the context of Allen buying the team outright. Locke says he was surprised to learn later that Allen instead bought an option to buy the team.
In retrospect, Locke says, “It would have been better to put it in writing.”
Democrat Ron Sims of the King County Council agrees. “Now the deal is being negotiated in the newspapers, which is a certain recipe for disaster.”
In his campaign, Locke portrays himself as a tight-fisted administrator of King County.
His campaign doesn’t say much about the biggest single task tackled by his administration: repairing the Kingdome.
The repair was a nightmare, including gigantic cost overruns, wasted money, and in the end, a stadium that experts say still needs tens of millions of dollars of work.
Repairs started last July, when ceiling tiles fell onto the ballfield. Twenty years of delayed maintenance came due.
Repairs to the stadium ceiling and roof were originally estimated to cost $32 million, but the bill ballooned to $51 million.
Carolyn Duncan of Locke’s public affairs office says the county didn’t know what it would get into once the repairs began.
The nine-acre, domed building is unique, and work was done under tremendous time pressure because the county lost money every day the building stayed closed, she says.
Expensive safety requirements, made even more rigorous following the accidental deaths of two workers, added time and cost. Putting workers on the job seven days a week, around the clock, also ran up costs, Duncan contends.
Money also was wasted. The county spent $195,000 on fabric ceiling baffles as a short-term fix, but wound up not using them after the Mariners objected.
A fraction of the baffles were later sold at an auction, recovering only $6,480.
The county still owes $65 million on the repairs, including $51 million for the work itself; borrowing costs; architectural fees, and more than $6 million in damages paid the Mariners and other Kingdome tenants closed out of the stadium during repairs.
Despite all the money spent, another consultant told the county last April it still needs $197 million worth of work, including better restrooms and earthquake safety improvements. A task force is reviewing the recommendations to determine how much of the work should be done.
Locke says he doesn’t mention the Kingdome repairs on the campaign trail because time at candidate forums and other venues is usually limited, and he wants to focus on his vision for the state.
While Locke ran into big money problems with the Kingdome, he has managed to save taxpayers money, starting with his own salary.
Two automatic 3 percent pay increases would have hiked his salary from $119,000 to $130,000 in 1996 but Locke turned the raises down.
Locke also instituted a new policy in which agencies that run more efficiently get to keep 50 cents of every dollar saved to provide an incentive to get away from the government “use-it-or-lose-it” mentality.
Agencies get half the savings, estimated at about $5 million so far, for training and technology upgrades. Taxpayers reap the rest.
Locke did away with a requirement that the county executive office approve routine contracts for purchases, leaving the responsibility to department heads to speed up the process.
Locke also makes a point of taking on the county’s legendary bureaucratic thicket. He refused to sign one document when he saw seven other managers had already approved it.
As for streamlining county government, it’s something that would have happened with Locke or without him. Voters approved a merger of county bureaucracies before Locke took office.
A campaign brochure states, “Gary has downsized county government.”
Locke implemented the merger, with the help of the county council.
Council member Sims makes it clear the reorganization was a joint effort. “I get defensive when people take credit for my work,” he says.
As part of the reorganization, Locke cut 600 county government jobs. But spending grew.
Locke says the spending increase was needed for a range of pressing needs, including police training and equipment; staff for a new 900-bed jail, and expanding school bus service.
Locke also offered a proposal in 1995 to raise some top managers’ salaries.
Under the salary range Locke proposed, pay for some jobs topped out at $101,569, or about 50 percent more than the market rate. “I said that’s something we just couldn’t afford,” Sims says.
“I wouldn’t call him a fiscal conservative. He’s more of a moderate. He came to realize this is a pretty conservative place.”
Locke worked with the council to come up with an alternative salary plan that ultimately saved taxpayers about $110,000.
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