Contrary to what you’ll hear out of Olympia, fixing Washington state’s budget problems will be easy. There are thousands of easy ways to do it and no shortage of Washingtonians eager to explain them.
Slash this program, raise that tax. Repeal these regulations, eliminate those exemptions. Do this, do that. No sweat.
The difficulty, of course, is that no solution will fly just because a handful of ardent stakeholders are passionately behind it. It has to be agreeable to at least 25 state senators, at least 50 House members and the governor. Representative government comes with a nagging political reality: Many constituencies have to be served, meaning compromises must be reached and deals must be cut.
That difficulty can’t be ignored, but it can be mitigated with sound, impartial analysis of the way government operates. In other words, the kind of treatment state voters had in mind in 2005 when they approved a ballot initiative giving state Auditor Brian Sonntag’s office authority to conduct performance audits of state and local agencies.
The performance audit program doesn’t ignite the kind of excitement you can provoke by suggesting a state income tax or elimination of the Basic Health Plan, but the potential for relieving pressure on the state’s finances and improving service delivery is too great to pass up.
Through June 30, 2009, the Auditor’s Office has laid out more than $284 million worth of estimated savings recommendations (over five years), two-thirds of which have been or are being implemented.
That won’t resolve the $2.6 billion revenue shortfall that faces lawmakers when they get down to business in Olympia on Jan. 12, but it promises ongoing economies based more on efficiency than ideology.
And with a prolonged economic recovery in the forecast, ongoing economies are precisely what we need.
The office’s first State Government Performance Review, released this month, offers a variety of short-term tactics that deserve the Legislature’s attention in the coming session. One example: a federal program that could help the state recover millions of dollars in outstanding debt.
In a long-standing issue that is likely to generate fireworks again in 2010, the Auditor’s Office has compiled a detailed and evenhanded analysis of the way liquor sales are handled in Washington. The office takes no position but provides impartial information that will allow lawmakers to wage their battle in a factual arena.
In the coming month, the office will be determining its next round of performance audits.
The voters of the state had high expectations for the program when they blessed it in 2005, and they haven’t been disappointed. The Legislature and the respective agencies need to take full advantage of this important tool.