Something needs to be done to improve sound state decision making while reining in the influence of special-interest groups, writes guest columnist and state Sen. Jim Kastama. He proposes the Agency Reallocation and Realignment of Washington commission, based on the federal Base Reallignment and Closure commission.
IN many ways, state government is like a big bus where every passenger has a brake lever. No matter where you want to go, someone else on the bus can slam on the brakes. That’s what special-interest groups do every day, and it’s why reform of state government is easy to talk about but virtually impossible to accomplish.
It’s also why frustrated voters gravitate to movements like the tea party and its “throw the bums out” mantra. But throwing the bums out is nothing new. Neither is what happens after they are thrown out. In no time at all, the so-called reformers who replace them form a new generation of “bums” who go about protecting their own set of sacred cows.
The reason is simple. What one elected representative considers waste, another considers indispensable. A program or facility that operates inefficiently and wastes taxpayer dollars might also provide employment in a district where jobs are hard to come by. So while it makes sense for the state to eliminate it, it also makes sense for the local officeholders or interest groups to preserve it. They’re simply acting in their best interest.
But the district’s best interest isn’t always the same as the state’s best interest — and when they collide, we often get a system incapable of making tough decisions, especially when it comes to prioritizing government services.
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Congress, in a rare example of self-reform, invented a template for streamlining government back in the 1980s. It was called the Base Realignment and Closure commission, or BRAC. BRAC was devised to take the politics of out deciding which military bases should be closed.
Instead of trusting the decision to officeholders, the commission was made up of nonelected leaders free of district loyalties or ties to local installations. The commission produced a single set of recommendations that Congress had to vote up or down without amendment, eliminating the time-honored haggling to cut deals and protect bases that didn’t deserve to be kept open.
The results speak for themselves. In its first four rounds — in 1989, 1991, 1993 and 1995 — BRAC closed more than 350 installations. Now imagine the savings we could reap if we took the same approach to state government, at a time when we desperately need to cut spending.
In the 2010 legislative session, I proposed an idea based on BRAC: The Agency Reallocation and Realignment of Washington (ARROW) commission. Like BRAC, ARROW would consist of independent leaders who could base their recommendations on the merits, not politics.
When I first drafted my bill, I envisioned a commission made up of folks like Dan Evans, Booth Gardner, Slade Gorton, Sid Snyder, John Spellman and Ruth Walsh-McIntyre — elder statesmen and women interested more in their legacies than in fulfilling short-term, special-interest needs. The ultimate identities of the appointees are not as important as their stature and independence from special interests.
The ARROW commission would propose ways of reducing spending while maintaining essential services. It would have the freedom to consolidate, eliminate or create state agencies and departments. It could also redefine the duties and responsibilities of state officers. All of this would have to be done within existing revenues. The commission would develop a single proposal that would be voted up or down by the Legislature without amendments.
When my legislation was written into the budget in the final days of session, I was optimistic. I knew that even if the Legislature voted against the commission’s recommendations, those recommendations would have been written into bill form that the public could adopt directly through the initiative process.
Unfortunately, the ARROW legislation was subsequently vetoed from the budget. In its place has arisen a 32-member advisory committee to the governor including many of the same interest groups that have been fiercely resistant to change.
If it follows the course of similar “blue ribbon” commissions, prepare for a report that is void of the tough decisions and innovative solutions necessary to maximize government services while living within current revenues.
My plan now is to reintroduce my ARROW commission legislation in the 2011 legislative session. If you want a mechanism for true reform, I urge you to tell your elected representatives to support this legislation.
Everybody agrees BRAC was a major success. ARROW can do the same for Washington state government, but not without your help — and your representative’s support.
Sen. Jim Kastama, D-Puyallup, chairs the Senate Economic Development, Trade & Innovation Committee and represents the 25th Legislative District.