April 6, 2014 in City

Spin Control: IT budget requests must now be prioritized

By The Spokesman-Review

OLYMPIA – Tucked inside the 291-page budget Gov. Jay Inslee signed last week is a paragraph that tells state agencies to ask for money for newfangled tech gear in a better way.

It’s what’s known as a proviso, sort of a marching order from the Legislature, somewhat akin to an earmark from Congress.

Many budget provisos tell an agency to spend a certain amount on a particular program in a specific district, which helps solidify a wavering vote for the entire budget from the legislator representing that district.

If you’re shocked by such political maneuvering, it’s time you woke up and smelled the triple-shot latte. For all the intoning about how budgets are “statements of principle” when they come to the House or Senate floor, they are really statements of income and outgo. Legislators who don’t pay enough attention to money being spent on the folks who elect them find themselves unelected.

So it’s good to see a proviso designed, instead, to help legislators keep a closer eye on spending. That’s the goal of Sec. 129, condition (8), which says, essentially, that when a state agency asks for money for information technology equipment, it has to put all those requests on a single summary sheet, ranked by priority, with costs and a timeline to get the equipment and to get it up and running.

It may surprise some people with a business bent that this isn’t standard operating procedure for a state with dozens of agencies of various sizes, thousands of employees and a seemingly endless need for updated cellphones, computers, servers, and other hardware and software needed to navigate the Information Age. But in the past, requests for IT equipment and upgrades, which could total five, six or even seven figures, were just included as line items in the overall budget documents.

And that, said Rep. Kevin Parker, R-Spokane, prompted some agencies to get somewhat creative when asking for IT, knowing chances were good that legislators poring through stacks and stacks of budget proposals were unlikely to go through each line with a fine-toothed comb.

One year, an agency allegedly included a request for a bus within its IT requests. And got it funded. (As a reporter who often does his most creative writing in expense accounts, I admit being impressed.)

Parker, who had his first taste of behind-the-scenes budget discussions in the last session, helped come up with the proviso after folks in the Office of the Chief Information Officer explained how IT requests could use more scrutiny.

David Schumacher, director of the Office of Financial Management, said he hadn’t heard the “bus-as-IT” story. But he believes the proviso will help agencies and the Legislature prioritize the money being spent on information technology, which has been growing rapidly in recent decades. If money’s tight, the Legislature will have a better idea of what shouldn’t make the cut.

“IT has become such a big, diverse thing through the years,” Schumacher said. “I think it became time to put our arms around it.”

Taking over for the Legislature

With the signing of the supplemental operating budget and some other bills Friday, lawmaking by the Legislature officially ended for 2014. But the other kind of lawmaking, by the public, is just ramping up.

Perennial initiative entrepreneur Tim Eyman has been hawking his latest idea since January, a ballot measure designed to force the Legislature into passing a constitutional amendment to require a supermajority to raise taxes. Perennial Eyman foes have been trashing the idea for just as long.

More than a dozen marijuana-related measures have also been filed, as tinkering with pot laws seems to be surpassing tinkering with tax laws among initiative fans.

New to the arena is a proposal by Ted Mahr, of Moses Lake, that would require testing the water off the Washington coast and the Puget Sound, and the critters in it, for signs of radiation from the Fukushima nuclear reactor following the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan. It would also require the governor to form a task force with the leaders of other states on the coast and British Columbia to deal with Fukushima and send help to Japan “to stop the dumping of the extremely radioactive water into the Pacific Ocean.”

The proposal, which has not yet received a number, is notable on several fronts beyond its topic. It may have one of the longest statements of purpose ever – 14 points over two pages, including one that accuses state and national leaders of “cataracts of ignorance or indifference” to radiation dangers – and misspells the first name of the president.

Mahr said he helped run successful ballot campaigns in the ’70s and ’80s. We’ll see if he can apply what he learned then to the present.

Spin Control also appears online at www.spokesman.com/spincontrol.

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