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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Eye On Olympia

Combing through the stuffed suggestion box for budget-fixing ideas…

In Thursday morning's paper:

Think back to the last time you renewed your driver’s license. Do you remember the shoes on the person behind the counter?

Of course not. But here’s a little known fact about those shoes: you probably paid for them.

Washington taxpayers provide a $97-a-year “shoe allowance” for the 330 folks working at more than 60 driver licensing offices across the state. You also pick up the tab for the state-logo-bearing shirts, pants, sweaters, jackets and hats worn by those employees, as well as a $27-a-month stipend for dry cleaning.

Now, with Washington’s government facing an unprecedented $5 billion to $6 billion budget shortfall over the next two years, people, including many state employees, are trying to find new ways to save.

Doing away with the clothing allowance was among the nearly 2,000 ideas submitted over the past few weeks to Gov. Chris Gregoire, who today will release a budget proposal expected to include deep spending cuts.

“We looked at all the suggestions and had them in mind as we were making decisions” on that proposal, said Glenn Kuper, a spokesman for the governor’s budget office. Many of the ideas, he said, could also be wrapped into a broader package of government reforms Gregoire plans to propose in January.

Gregoire sent out the call for ideas a month ago, asking the public what programs could be sacrificed, privatized or made more efficient. She set up a Web site to take comments:

Some of the ideas – like legalizing marijuana and selling it to raise money – would be a very long shot indeed in Olympia. One person suggested ending daylight savings time.

And some of the recommendations probably wouldn’t save very much money. The Department of Licensing, for example, says that buying clothes for those 330 workers costs less than $1,500 a month. Agency spokesman Brad Benfield said it’s partly a safety issue: customers, particularly parents, want to be sure someone is a staffer before letting them into a car for a driving test and driving away.

“Secondly, we want our front-line representatives to look professional,” Benfield said. “Providing uniforms eliminates the need to constantly monitor the clothing staff wear and the possibility that our staff will come to work in clothing that citizens may find offensive.”

Plus, he said, the clothing benefit is part of the workers’ collective bargaining agreement. The agency has no plans to change it.

Still, some budget hawks consider the governor’s openness to new ideas encouraging.

“Usually these budgets are written behind closed doors, and outside the special interest lobbyists and stakeholders, you don’t have a lot of public participation in how the budget is written,” said Jason Mercier, with the conservative Washington Policy Center. “It may be pie in the sky, but any time you involve the public, it’s a good thing.”

Many state workers who responded encouraged the governor to assign more workers to four-day weeks of 10-hour days, which is expected to save some heating and lighting costs at state buildings.

Some workers said they’d be willing to go further:

•require all state workers to take mandatory unpaid days off,

•let workers volunteer for temporary pay cuts,

•cutting all state workers’ pay by $1-$3 an hour, depending on how much they’re paid,

•or eliminate all pay increases for state workers for the next four years.

One worker suggested giving state workers more money – a 5 percent cost-of-living increase next year, instead of the planned 2 percent — and calling the boost an economic stimulus package. Many others suggested buyouts to encourage workers to retire early.

Some workers are clearly sweating the possibility of layoffs.

“I’ve been put out of work twice in the last 9 years, and emotionally and economically, I cannot afford to have this happen again,” one worker wrote. “This whole thing scares me and so many others. My grandkids depend on me to support them and my wife.”

Many employees suggested efficiencies, including:

•saving paper by only buying printers capable of printing on both sides,

•putting solar cells atop all state buildings,

•reducing security staff in office lobbies,

•switch to free, open-source software,

•renting out vacant space in state buildings,

•and eliminating any manager who doesn’t supervise at least a dozen people.

Many members of the public suggested using prison labor on construction projects, prison farms, snow shoveling and janitorial work. One person suggested doing away with the lieutenant governor’s job; another wants to sell the state’s non-military aircraft.

And many people suggested that Gregoire do something she’s promised not to: raise taxes.

“It was a mistake to promise not to raise taxes,” wrote a man named Edwin Aralica. “Everything should be on the table. Second, if you raise taxes, the public will understand and forgive you. We need services. Government is the most stable platform in tough economic times. If the government can spend money, it will help all of us.”

That’s a similar argument to the one being made now by public-worker unions and some Democratic lawmakers. Widespread layoffs, they say, will only worsen an economy already sagging under record-low consumer confidence.

Among the suggestions to raise more money:

•consider a state income tax,

•boost taxes on alcohol and tobacco,

•quickly boost the gas tax, now that fuel prices are much lower,

•boost fines for speeding and drunken driving,

•and find a way to collect part of the profits from tribal casinos.

Mercier said he hopes that state lawmakers who will write the final budget over the next several months maintain the same openness to suggestions.

“You never want to see us in the kind of conversation that we’re having now” around the huge shortfall, he said, “but there’s great opportunity that comes out of it.”

Short takes and breaking news from the Washington Legislature and the state capital.