Friday, April 2, 2010

Telling stories with numbers

Every one of us spends some amount of time each day looking at statistics or numbers or charts. Whether it's stats on your favorite sports team, competing polls relaying American's opinions on health care reform, or the little electricity-use chart on your utility statement, we absorb a lot of data throughout the day.

And every one of us, including organizations and businesses, uses data and numbers selectively to tell stories. It's exciting to tell your spouse you just found an amazing designer jacket marked down 75 percent (!) but not so exciting when your spouse sees it still cost $350. An oil company will tout that it spends $600 million a year on researching renewable energy (!) but not tout that only makes up 1 percent of their profits.

When it comes to budgets and taxes, the stories you can tell with numbers are almost endless. Depending on how you splice and dice the data, you can probably make a case for any story you want to tell.

Rep. Ross Hunter points this out on his blog where he briefly describes why tax rankings can vary so much, even when those rankings come from the same organization.

You see this selective use of numbers in our current budget debate, too.

When you look at the entire 2009-11 biennium budget, you see that we'll be making about $4 billion in cuts with $800 million or so in new revenue. That's about $4.40 in cuts for every $1 in new revenue.

Our colleagues on the other side of the aisle, however, like to tell a different story. They argue we're proposing only about 1 percent, or $653 million, in cuts while raising $800 million in revenue.

Well, if you're looking at just the 2010 supplemental budget, this is true, but misleading. You don't hand out medals to relay runners based on their individual times, but on their cumulative time. It's the same thing with our budget - the only numbers that really matter are the totals at the end.

Which, hopefully, we'll get to soon. We'll keep you posted.

House will resume floor action this morning at 10:00

The Washington State House will be on the floor today to consider several bills necessary to implement the 2010 supplemental operating budget. We will also look at Senate bill 6846 -enhanced 911 communications sysytems.

Revenue and budget discussions are still ongoing, including a three-corners meeting last evening. As of this hour there is no breakthrough to report but talks will continue throughout the weekend.

More news as the day progresses.......

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Bullying a persistent problem in schools

The heartbreaking story of 15-year-old Phoebe Prince is shining a bright light on the destructive consequences of bullying in schools.

Though relatively few cases end as tragically as Phoebe's, the experience of being bullied can have devastating and long-lasting impacts on a child, including lower test scores and a range of social and emotional problems.

According to the national PTA:
Victims of bullying suffer psychological and sometimes physical scars that last a lifetime. Victims report greater fear and anxiety, feel less accepted, suffer from more health problems, and score lower on measures of academic achievement and self-esteem than students who are not bullied. Victims often turn their anger inward, which may lead to depression, anxiety, and even suicide.
Fortunately, Washington has more protections in place for students than most states. We first passed an anti-bullying law in 2002, updating it in 2007 to include electronic forms of bullying (texts, e-mails).

Unfortunately, a study in 2008 showed these laws were not reducing bullying and harassment in Washington schools. According to the Office of Washington's Education Ombudsman, more than 30 percent of 6th graders report being bullied in the past 30 days, 27 percent of 8th graders, 23 percent of 10th graders and almost 16 percent of 12th graders.

That's why Rep. Marko Liias authored a bill this year directing the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction to revise and update its anti-harassment policies and procedures, changes that school districts must incorporate into their own policies and procedures.

For more information about anti-harassment policies in our schools, or to find out how you can help a student you fear is being bullied, take a look at the resources available at the Washington State School Safety Center.

New law increases duty-related death benefits for public safety employees

Four months following the brutal slayings of four Lakewood law enforcement officers, Gov. Chris Gregoire signed into law a bill that extends duty-related death benefits for children and spouses of fallen and severely injured officers, firefighters and state troopers.

In an effort to look after the families of the brave individuals who put their lives at risk every day, Rep. Tami Green introduced House Bill 2519, which Gregoire signed yesterday at the Lakewood Police Department.

“It’s time to stand up for the brave men and woman who put their trust in us when they put their lives on the line,” Green said. “The most important thing we can do is make sure the surviving spouses and the children of these folks are taken care of.”

Green’s bill closes current loopholes including the removal of a 10-year service requirement for survivors of duty-related death benefits to qualify for a survivor annuity. This helps ensure the family of a fallen rookie officer would receive livable benefits, regardless of how long the officer had served.

“The life of a rookie officer is just as valuable as a 10-year veteran,” Green said. “Each life is irreplaceable.”

Among the many other components of Green’s HB 2519, the new law will help ensure death benefits rise as inflation continues. It will also make it mandatory for state institutions of higher education to waive tuition and fees for children and spouses of fallen and severely disabled law enforcement officers, firefighters and state troopers.

“Let’s get to work for our fallen officers, their families and our entire law enforcement community,” said Gregoire in this year’s State of the State address. “…and for their children, it is our duty to make available a college education.”

Green said sending a child to school with two incomes is difficult enough and she hopes the new law will help alleviate at least some of the pain endured by the families.

The new law goes into effect this June.

Running a Lean Legislature

This month's issue of State Legislatures magazine, produced by the non-partisan National Conference of State Legislatures, features Going Lean, a report on how a few legislatures around the country have trimmed their own budgets to save tax dollars:

In Washington, lawmakers finally have figured out a way to cut down on their paperwork. They simply can’t afford to print as many documents. The state House printing budget has been cut by $568,000.

Committee staff no longer produce glossy binders filled with documents for members to leaf through on the dais. Instead, lawmakers read legislation, bill analyses and other necessary materials on their laptops. “We’ve also made that same electronic information available to the public, though the public website,” says Bernard Dean, deputy clerk of the House.

Legislators also more often communicate electronically with their constituents, given a 38 percent cut to their printing and postal budgets. “The cost of mailing a newsletter far exceeds the cost of e-mailing a newsletter,” Dean says.

The story goes on to quote our Majority Leader Lynn Kessler:

In the Washington House, the number of aides hired for the session has decreased, and about 10 year-round staff positions have been eliminated. The staff who remain are taking furlough days. Legislative staff overall accounted for 62 percent of the unpaid days taken by Washington state employees during the first six months of the current fiscal year—an astonishing statistic when you consider that House and Senate personnel together make up just 440 of the state’s 71,000 full-time employees.

That discrepancy won’t last. Lynn Kessler, the Washington House majority leader, notes that other state employees now find themselves facing furlough days, which were imposed this year. Kessler also argues that the Legislature needed to grow more efficient and get out of the business of doing things that private companies should be taking care of.

Kessler says the Legislature, despite the cuts, “is left in a place we’re comfortable with. We’ve just cut back like everybody else,” she says. “We are not more important than the private sector people who have been laid off.”

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Legislative special session progress report

Although most legislators are back home in their districts, those responsible for reaching the final decisions needed to finish the special session are still hard at work in Olympia. Speaker Frank Chopp, for example, has only taken one day off since the special session commenced.

The budget negotiators are meeting at this hour, and the revenue group will meet tomorrow morning. Also, the Senate will be on the floor passing bills Thursday -- the House will follow suit on Friday.

More information later today!

Boards and commissions on the cutting room floor

Both the Governor and Legislature have been working to shrink the number of state boards and commissions. On Monday, Governor Gregoire signed Rep. John Driscoll's legislation to eliminate 46 additional state boards and commissions, bringing the total number of boards and commissions no longer on the books to about 130 , which the News Tribune reports will save an estimate $3.3 million over the next five years.

In addition, the Governor last week approved Rep. Kevin Van De Wege’s bill to reduce the number of state environmental and land use hearing boards from five to two. When combined with a Senate bill to further streamline the work of the (now-named) Environmental and Land Use Hearing Office, the Governor’s office says taxpayers will save about $250,000 per biennium. Her office has posted a handy before-and-after of how the smaller operation looks.

Watch out, you license cheats. Your free-ride days are numbered

It’s a fairness thing. And yes, it’s a “do the right thing” thing. The fact is, millions of dollars are lost every year that would otherwise help support public programs and services for folks who live in Washington. That’s because thousands of vehicles kept in Clark County where their owners reside are licensed in Oregon instead of the Evergreen State.

State Rep. Jim Moeller has captured unanimous support in the two legislative chambers for his plan “to put a stop to these tax scalawags.” Moeller’s measure, House Bill 2436, seeks to quash a subterfuge that tax cheats employ to enjoy the public services of Washington.

“Although they con the system, these people still get an education for their kids, for instance, and protection for their home and property. They don’t carry their fair share of the tax weight that goes toward making these services possible. In snubbing our state’s law, the owners of these vehicles get out of paying our state’s sales-and-use tax.”

House Deputy Speaker Pro Tempore Moeller is on the verge of getting gubernatorial ink to make his bill the law of the state. He said that as much as $10 million in annual revenue never makes it to the Washington treasury to help pay for Washington programs and services.

“The Clark County Vehicle License Task Force has included dozens of local volunteers who have worked with dedicated Washington State Patrol troopers to round up these chiselers.” The cost of the Task Force is approximately $325,000 per year, added Moeller, “and the program can actually more than pay for itself.”

A member of the House Transportation Committee where the legislation was first discussed, Moeller noted that some people do register their vehicles in Washington, but continue to keep their out-of-state driver’s license – “and they do so as a way to avoid paying our state’s sales tax when they buy goods and services here. These folks are using our state=s services, but they’re not helping pay for them. We’re talking about our schools, our roads, and our public-safety services that are funded by the taxes that the rest of us do pay.”

Washington law says that when a person establishes residency here, he or she must register his or her vehicles – and reregister the vehicles every year – if the vehicles will be operated on Washington’s public roads and highways. The person must pay all required licensing fees and taxes. To make sure that folks are not just registering their vehicles in Washington and then keeping their Oregon driver’s license to buy products and goods tax-free, owners of a vehicle must have a Washington driver’s license in order to license the vehicle. While the law is on the state’s books, its enforcement was recently cut by the governor as a way to help deal with the monumental revenue crisis.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

New reforms will save $25 million

The demand for government services in our state has been on the rise, but we currently have fewer resources coming in to meet those demands. Since the 1930’s, our state has provided income and medical support to childless adults who cannot work due to a disability.

This program, now called Disability Lifeline, was meant to provide temporary assistance while helping people get on track to rehabilitation and re-entry into the workforce, as well as provide a bridge to permanent Social Security Income (SSI) benefits for those who qualified. The number of people receiving these benefits has grown by nearly 50 percent within the last four years. A third of these people are homeless, and most of the rest are near-homeless. More than a third of those helped—including many veterans—are mentally ill.

At the start of this year’s Legislative session, Disability Lifeline, previously referred to as the General Assistance Unemployable program, was in jeopardy, putting approximately 17,000 people with disabilities at risk of losing their basic financial and medical needs. Fortunately, the Legislature protected Disability Lifeline and implemented reforms that are expected to save approximately $25 million.

With Rep. Mary Lou Dickerson’s House Bill 2782, Disability Lifeline will continue to serve some of the most vulnerable populations in our state. Signed into law yesterday, HB 2782 creates new time limits and emphasizes faster transitions to employability or federally-funded SSI benefits within the Disability Lifeline program.

With the new time limits in the Disability Lifeline reforms, benefits are limited to 24 months in a 5-year period-begin Sept. 1 and will be retroactive. Now Disability Lifeline recipients must also participate in substance-abuse treatment or vocational rehabilitation, when appropriate. They will also have to accept housing vouchers in lieu of cash grants, when suitable housing is available. Expedited case reviews will hasten transitions to employability or SSI.

On the road again

Just like yesterday when the Governor signed a slew of education reform bills at Auburn High School, today’s bill-signing ceremony is on the road. The focus, fittingly, is on transportation, and officials and stakeholders gathered in Bellevue late this morning.

The governor signed the 2010 supplemental transportation budget, bringing the total 2009-11 budget to a record $8.5 billion. The $1 billion rise over last year comes mainly from new federal funds and is expected to generate 3,000 jobs.

“With this $8.5 billion plan, we’re building on the momentum of last year’s budget, which was already a record level of investment,” says Rep. Judy Clibborn, chair of the Transportation Committee. Officials estimate that last year’s construction season was the largest ever, as investments from the 2003 Nickel and 2005 TPA gas-tax packages hit their peak.

Most of this year’s increase comes from $590 million in federal grants to bolster high-speed rail along the I-5 corridor. On top of that, a $30 million grant from the feds will help Seattle’s Mercer Street project, and $35 million will go toward the North Spokane Corridor in Spokane. Both projects were deemed crucial to regional economic competitiveness.

“Today’s package of bills prepares us for the future,” Clibborn says, noting that the SR 520 bridge project continues to advance and that a streamlined tolling process is now in place for use on future projects.

Rep. Deb Eddy, an Eastside legislator who also attended the bill signing, said the 520 funding bill is an especially important success. She was one of the leaders in brokering a compromise to free up the funding for use on related Eastside projects.

“We’ve got construction workers needing jobs and construction jobs ready to go. We’ve got thousands of commuters and businesses who want us to put the studies back on the shelf and get these projects going. Though we still have unresolved issues on the west side of the bridge, it’s critical we move forward on those pieces of the project that are finalized and I’m very happy we came up with a strategy to do just that.”

For a complete rundown of the transportation bills signed today click here (PDF).