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

Promised reform will be difficult

The Spokesman-Review

In last year’s gubernatorial race, Dino Rossi scored points with his contention that entrenched fiefdoms in state government were slowing progress.

“The same people have been running the show in Olympia for 20 years,” he said to a Yakima audience during an October debate.

The political traction of that critique was not lost on Chris Gregoire, who wrapped up her comments at the same debate with: “I want to change the culture in Olympia. I want to blow past the bureaucracy. I want to get things done.”

If that’s still the case, she’ll have to get the cooperation of a lot of familiar faces. Not only are many members of her 23-person Cabinet old hands around Olympia; they are making significantly more money, according to a Seattle Times analysis.

Gregoire’s Cabinet will make $256,000 a year more than the last version under Gary Locke. And Locke himself doled out hefty raises to state executives. Since 2003, the average salary for a Cabinet officer has risen 16 percent, from $108,000 to nearly $125,000 per year. By comparison, state employees will get a 4.8 percent increase over the next two years after going four years without a raise.

Gregoire’s generous raises for familiar executives aren’t going to break the budget, but they don’t send the kind of reform message voters want to hear. The most direct way to shake up agencies is to bring in fresh leadership from a variety of backgrounds. Only four of her hires came directly from the private sector; only eight have any private sector experience. Nearly two-thirds of her Cabinet members and senior managers are veteran state employees, according to the Times.

Dick Davis of the Washington Research Council, a business-backed think tank, called Gregoire’s appointments “another round of musical chairs in Olympia.”

As for the raises, Gregoire’s chief of staff Tom Fitzsimmons says they are overdue, because government salaries have slipped far behind those in the private sector and that makes it difficult to hire talented managers.

Government salaries for executives will never keep pace. The president of the United States lags far behind most corporate leaders. Vice President Dick Cheney and others took enormous pay cuts to serve. If the difference between taking a government job and turning it down is a 16 percent raise, then that executive is going into public service for the wrong reasons.

There was bipartisan agreement during the campaign that the state suffers from bureaucratic inertia. While it’s too late to do anything about the new hires and their new pay, Gregoire should keep to her campaign pledge to shake up lethargic agencies.

The people paying the bills expect no less.