November 20, 2008 in Voices

Governor asking for your suggestions

Richard Roesler Staff writer
 

OLYMPIA – With state government facing a multi-billion-dollar budget shortfall over the next two years, Gov. Chris Gregoire wants to know what you’d suggest.

“If you know of an effective strategy to significantly trim costs, I want to hear from you,” Gregoire said this week.

State government has long run a “productivity board” to vet state-workers’ suggestions for saving taxpayers’ dollars. Switching to slightly smaller envelopes for Department of Transportation documents, for example, saved more than $91,000 a year.

From citizens, Gregoire seeking comment on three things:

•what state programs can be sacrificed in order to preserve essential services?

•how can state services be cheaper and more efficient?

•and what government functions might be better handled by the private sector or nonprofits?

Gregoire has already frozen most state hiring, cut travel, halted contracts and delayed equipment purchases. She’s also calling for deeper cuts to state agencies and suspended a proposal to provide paid leave for parents taking time off from work to bond with a new child.

Got an idea? Go to www.governor.wa.gov or write Gregoire at P.O. Box 40002, Olympia, WA 98504-0002.

‘Do not buy’

State budget officials have some suggestions, too.

At Gregoire’s request, they’ve been scrubbing the state budget, ranking programs the same way a cash-strapped family might rank expenses. Heat and electricity, for example, would rank high for that family. Health insurance would likely be a bit lower. Replacing the old refrigerator is an expense that can be put off for now. And a new Playstation? Do not buy.

The same thing, but with much bigger numbers, happened at the Office of Financial Management, which quietly posted the results on its Web site. Here are some things it rated “do not buy.”

•Pay hikes to encourage child care teachers to seek more education in early learning: $50 million.

•The state’s “Family Policy Council,” which creates “community-based comprehensive plans for the prevention of selected problem behaviors, based on data, community input, and the risk and protective factor analysis.” (This apparently means that they try to head off juvenile crime.) Price: $7.7 million.

•Promotion of horse racing by the state Horse Racing Commission: $3.6 million.

•Performance audits of government agencies, to see how efficiently and effectively they’re doing their jobs. Price: $27 million.

•The state auditor’s telephone hotline program “to report waste, inefficiency or abuse.” Price: $1 million.

•Opening 5 new liquor stores by 2011. Price: $1.6 million.

Lisa Brown still at the helm

Senate Democrats re-elected Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, D-Spokane, to the same job during a recent meeting in Seatac. Under every possible scenario in the minority, with a slight majority, and now with a big majority, Brown has headed up the Senate Democrats since 2002.

Despite shortfall, school reform group presses on

Day after day in Olympia recently, a small group of lawmakers, school officials and others have been grappling with ways to re-tool K-12 education in Washington.

Their primary mission is to rewrite the complex formula through which the state steers billions of dollars a year to local schools. As things stand now, state Rep. Ross Hunter said recently, that formula “is impenetrable not only to normal people, but it’s impenetrable to us.”

That discussion has turned into a larger debate about school reforms, with some members proposing merit pay for teachers, the state taking over salary negotiations for all 295 school districts, and other major changes. One thing that most members seem to agree on: schools need more money.

“We’re grossly underfunded, and that needs to stop,” said Davenport school Superintendent Jim Kowalkowski, a member of the group.

Many of the changes are likely to face fierce resistance from the state teacher’s union. Arguing to preserve local control of schools, the Washington Education Association’s Randy Parr said more state control would result in “McSchools.”

“You know what kind of hamburger you’re going to get no matter where it is in the state,” Parr said, “and you also know it’s not going to be very good.”

Also controversial: a proposal to attract more math and science teachers by paying them more than other teachers. That idea “has been one of those that causes people’s hair to catch on fire,” said state Rep. Ross Hunter, D-Medina.

Faced with the recession, the group is now proposing launching the changes over 6 to 8 years. And despite skepticism about significant reforms, group members insist that change is coming.

“I know a lot of people have blown this process off for the last year and a half and said this will never amount to anything,” said state Superintendent of Public Instruction Terry Bergeson. “Well, get over it.”

And that means more money for schools, they say.

“If this doesn’t come out at the end with a substantial amount of new money for districts, I’ll eat my hat,” said Hunter.

Richard Roesler can be reached at (360) 664-2598 or by e-mail at richr@spokesman.com.


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