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State lauded for showing expenditures; chided for budget process

Thu., March 28, 2013

OLYMPIA – Washington gets a good grade for showing its residents how the state spends their money but deserves lower marks for letting them see how those spending decisions are made, government watchdog groups said Wednesday on the eve of the next big milestone in the budget process.

Gov. Jay Inslee is scheduled to release his budget recommendations late this morning, on day 74 of the 105-day legislative session, and the Senate majority caucus is expected to release its full budget sometime next week.

Groups worried about cuts or hoping for increases are stepping up lobbying efforts and looking for ways to catch legislators’ attention. On Wednesday, the Children’s Alliance held its annual Taste of Spokane luncheon – featuring Longhorn Barbecue food for Spokane-area legislators – and made a pitch for programs that protect children. This morning, a group of seniors will hold a bake sale in the Capitol basement and give the proceeds to legislative leaders as a way of pressuring them to spend more on programs for seniors and disabled people.

With the state expected to collect about $2 billion more in revenue over the next two-year budget cycle than this biennium, the pressure on the budget may be less than recent years. But competition for money for programs is still intense. Even with the extra revenue, the main budget for state programs, policies and salaries, known as the operating budget, has a gap of about $1.2 billion between the amount of money the state expects to collect in taxes and the cost of all programs and services it currently provides.

Plus, the state may need to spend as much as $1 billion more on public schools to satisfy a state Supreme Court mandate.

Keeping up with all the spending proposals is difficult. But the Washington Public Interest Research Group gave the state a B-minus for budget transparency, based in large part on its website that lets people track the budget online. Jason Mercier, of the Washington Policy Center, who joined in Wednesday’s “report card” announcement on the steps of the Capitol, said he might give the state a B-plus for the website but an incomplete for the way the budget is passed.

That process still includes “title only” blank bills that are introduced to provide vehicles for late-session budget changes; spending plans of several hundred pages that are sent to hearings just hours after they are introduced; and back-room negotiations that exclude the public, Mercier said.

“After they’ve done what they’re going to do to us, we do get to see it,” he said.

That’s because of an increasingly sophisticated website operated by the Legislative Evaluation and Accountability Program Committee, which allows citizens to compare in great detail the operating budget proposals for the next two years by the governor, House and Senate committees, almost as soon as they are released, and compare them with the current biennial budget.

LEAP also offers citizens a chance to see where money for separate budgets for capital and transportation projects will be spent statewide, in individual counties or legislative districts, said Tom Jensen, the program administrator.

Washington scored better than 34 other states, said Micaela Preskill of the Public Interest Research Group. It was marked down for not providing more information about state agencies’ “off-budget” spending and various economic development subsidies.

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