Author Archives: Erik Smith

Head tax steals spotlight, but Seattle income-tax crusade alive and well

By Erik Smith | Published on May 18, 2018

A new tax plan from the Seattle City Council is getting all the attention these days – a “head tax” that might best be described as a tax on jobs created by Seattle’s largest employers. But the city’s crusade for an income tax is alive and well and is working its way through the courts.

On Dec. 11, the city appealed the ruling of Superior Court Judge John Ruhl that a city income tax is illegal under Washington state law. It is asking the state Supreme Court to take the case directly, without going to the Court of Appeals first. That would achieve one goal – placing the case before the Supreme Court in a way that could allow it to overturn its 1933 ruling that an income tax requires a constitutional amendment and a public vote. The Supreme Court has yet to announce that it will take the case.

The city has agreed to pay Pacifica Law Group, a firm representing liberal political causes, up to $250,000 to pursue the case. That is in addition to the $50,000 the city has paid the Economic Opportunity Institute, a liberal think tank, for consulting services. City officials have said they do not expect the case to be resolved until 2019.

Seattle Times, Dec. 1, 2017: Appeal likely in ‘longshot’ income-tax case, Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan says

KIRO Radio, Dec. 9, 2017: Seattle makes first step to taking its income tax to Supreme Court

KIRO TV, Jan. 16, 2018: Two perspectives on the controversial Seattle income tax

Seattle Times, April 23, 2018: Seattle playing wait-and-see with income tax on the wealthy

Income tax is central feature of House budget proposal

By Erik Smith | Published on March 08, 2018

Once again, Democrats in the state Legislature attempted to pass an income tax during the 2018 legislative session. Just as in 2015 and 2017, majority Democrats in the House built their budget proposal on the assumption that the Legislature would pass a new income tax on capital gains. This time there were a few new wrinkles.

This year’s proposal, House Bill 2967, attempted to use property-tax relief as a justification. The measure would have directed proceeds from the income tax to property tax reductions in the future. Because the tax would have taken at least two years to implement, it would have provided no relief for taxpayers who are complaining about the one-time increases in this year’s state property tax. Earlier Democratic income-tax proposals also have attempted to capitalize on topics of current concern, by earmarking tax collections for health care reform and K-12 education.

Ultimately this new income tax was rejected when majority Democrats in the House and Senate agreed on a budget that did not require its passage. They diverted money from the state Rainy Day Fund instead. But the debate demonstrated that the income-tax crusade is alive and well in the Legislature, and will likely return for debate in 2019.

  • Fun fact: Even though the House budget proposal was built around the income tax, House Democratic leaders neglected to bring the tax bill to the floor of the House for a vote. This denied Democratic lawmakers the opportunity to take a recorded vote in favor of higher taxes.

Associated Press, Feb. 20, 2018: House Democrats’ budget plan relies on capital gains tax

Seattle Times, Feb. 20, 2018: Washington House Democrats propose taxing capital gains, ignoring Supreme Court on K-12 school funding

Inslee breaks with tradition, fails to propose income tax

By Erik Smith | Published on December 23, 2017

The governor’s budget proposal for 2018 breaks with tradition — for the first time since taking office, Inslee has failed to propose an income tax. For those who follow the utterances of political leaders, the situation may be confusing. Inslee has said he opposes an income tax. Yet he has repeatedly proposed an income tax on capital gains, as if the two can be distinguished. Every budget proposal since 2014 has included one — until now. The latest proposal is balanced instead with a proposed tax on energy usage, another Inslee favorite, possibly signaling that the income tax debate in the Legislature will be deferred until 2019. In these stories, Jim Camden of the Spokesman-Review describes the “guessing game” that accompanies the release of the governor’s budget. And in an op-ed published in the Tri-City Herald, Jason Mercier addresses the claim that a capital gains income tax, which is really an income tax with a narrow base, ought to be seen as something other than an income tax.

The Spokesman-Review, Dec. 17, 2017 (Jim Camden column): Budget guessing game: Where will the money come from?

Tri-City Herald, Dec. 23, 2017 (Jason Mercier op-ed):  Yes Virginia, a capital gains tax is an income tax 

Seattle judge rules municipal income tax is illegal

By Erik Smith | Published on November 22, 2017

In November 2017, a King County Superior Court judge ruled Seattle’s effort to impose an income tax violates state law. The decision was a major blow for those who hope the courts will use the case to overturn the Supreme Court’s 1933 ruling that a graduated-rate income tax is unconstitutional. First Judge John Ruhl decided that Seattle’s income tax is indeed an income tax, despite the city’s effort to declare it something else — an “excise tax” on “the privilege of living in Seattle.” Then Ruhl decided that two more-important issues must be addressed before courts can consider the constitutional question. The first is that cities cannot adopt an income tax unless the Legislature specifically grants them the authority. The second is that a 1984 state law says cities may not adopt an income tax. These two findings erect high hurdles for Seattle’s effort. Yet the city of Seattle continues to press the case under new mayor Jenny Durkan, and has filed an appeal directly to the Supreme Court. Should the court decide to hear the case, the nine justices are free to decide otherwise. Ruhl’s decision makes that outcome difficult, however, as the justices would have to find an excuse to dispute his legal reasoning.

For more information, see —

Seattle Times, Nov. 22, 2017:  Seattle’s income tax on the wealthy is illegal, judge rules    

Crosscut, Nov. 22, 2017: Judge rules income tax illegal but Seattle vows to fight on

Seattle Times, Dec. 2, 2017:  Appeal likely in ‘longshot’ income-tax case, Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan says

The (Tacoma) News-Tribune, Dec. 4, 2017 (editorial):  Sorry, Seattle, this is no time for income tax talk

Seattle Times, Dec. 8, 2017 (editorial): Seattle should drop its dead-end income-tax case

Bloomberg News, Dec. 15, 2017:  Seattle appeals court decision invalidating ‘rich’ tax

 

 

Bill prompted by Corrections scandal set for Thursday vote in Senate committee

By Erik Smith | Published on February 13, 2017

Click here to see Teri Herold-Prayer’s testimony: “Either keep your mouth shut or risk your career for telling the truth.”

OLYMPIA – A bill prompted by deadly prisoner releases by the state Department of Corrections is set for a vote Thursday in the Senate Law and Justice Committee, a year after the agency revealed it had turned loose some 3,000 violent and dangerous prisoners ahead of schedule.

Senate Bill 5294, sponsored by committee chair Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley and vice chair Steve O’Ban, R-University Place, would enact sweeping recommendations for reform made by the committee, following one of the most extensive investigations in the history of the Washington State Legislature. The bill would:

  • Establish that DOC’s primary duty is to protect public safety.
  • Create an independent “ombuds” office to investigate complaints, monitor the agency’s performance, and advocate reforms. The new office would deal with concerns raised by employees, inmates and their families.
  • Require the Department of Corrections to hand-calculate release dates if it has any reason to believe a sentencing calculation error has been made.
  • Require DOC to inform the governor and the Legislature about any backlog in requests for information-technology fixes.
  • Require the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Committee to conduct a performance audit of the agency’s information technology and records departments, and make recommendations about proposed fixes.
  • Reinforce state law assigning the governor ultimate responsibility for the conduct of all offices under his control, and require the governor to ensure they perform their duties as prescribed by law and ensure personal and professional and personal conflicts of interest are avoided
  • Create a legislative task force to simplify criminal sentencing – without reducing sentences.
  • Enact reforms to the State Employee Whistleblower Program overseen by the state Auditor’s office.

“This tragic case continues to haunt us today,” Padden said. “Two people might still be alive were it not for the bureaucratic indifference of the Department of Corrections. The worst part is that this isn’t the only example of a systemic management failure at DOC – it’s just the one we have heard the most about.”

O’Ban, who helped lead last year’s inquiry, said, “Our independent Senate investigation of the DOC made one thing abundantly clear. The DOC needs reform and greater transparency. We are hopeful the DOC will embrace the reforms of this bill to help restore the public’s confidence in this vital public safety agency.”

Two deaths and numerous crimes have been linked to the agency’s early releases of prisoners, which occurred over a 13-year period starting in 2002. The releases, disclosed to the public in December 2015, involved inmates convicted of armed crimes and sexual violence. The early releases averaged 59 days but ranged up to nearly two years. The initial mistake was caused by an error in computer programming, but it was compounded a decade later when Corrections employees learned of the problem. Their request for a software fix was delayed three more years and the releases continued.

A full accounting of the impact of the early releases has never been completed, though an incomplete analysis released by DOC last year indicated that at least 29 offenders committed new crimes when they should have been in prison.

Last year, a report commissioned by Gov. Jay Inslee pinned the blame on mid-level employees, largely exonerated upper managers, and was silent about the responsibility of the governor’s office to supervise the agency. A broader-ranging independent investigation by the Senate Law and Justice Committee established that top DOC executives had sufficient knowledge to take action, yet failed to do so – and they displayed a remarkable lack of curiosity when middle managers flagged the matter to their attention. Instead, they continued to divert agency time and resources to an ambitious and still-unfinished computer project.

The Senate investigation, utilizing sworn testimony and subpoena power, also established that the governor’s office had sufficient knowledge of the early-release issue to make inquiries, and that it ignored other red flags of management problems, including heavy turnover in the agency’s IT department and reorganizations that made no sense. The investigation also found that a personal relationship between former Corrections Secretary Bernie Warner and a senior member of the governor’s staff may have discouraged inquiries because the conflict of interest was not addressed appropriately.

The committee offered its recommendations last May after issuing a report of approximately 1,000 pages.

“It is hard to imagine a more egregious failure of management oversight,” Padden said. “And now that we have had a year to consider reforms, it is time for us to take action to prevent such a tragedy from recurring.”

As part of its investigation last year, the Senate committee sought comments from the more-than-10,000 employees of the Department of Corrections. Many said agency managers targeted front-line employees who dared to criticize management practices. The point was underscored at a Feb. 9 Law and Justice hearing on Padden’s reform measure. Teri Herold Prayer, a former DOC researcher, said she was demoted and faced other retaliation after she made a whistleblower complaint regarding fraudulent data used in submitting a research grant application. Ultimately she settled a lawsuit against the state, but said the settlement barred her from future state employment.

“The cost for telling the truth is too great,” she said. “I am now having to look for work in other states. I will have to leave my family and friends. At my age, finding employment is going to be difficult at best. The message my settlement sent to the DOC staff and all state employees is either keep your mouth shut or risk your career for telling the truth.”

 

 

Steve O’Ban: How Washington State Accidentally Released 3,000 Prisoners Early — and How it Failed to Fix the Problem

By Erik Smith | Published on June 28, 2016

This guest column was published by The Weekly Standard Online, June 27, 2016.

By Steve O’Ban, R-Pierce County

Sen. Steve O'Ban, R-Pierce County.

Sen. Steve O’Ban, R-Pierce County.

In 2002, the Washington State Department of Corrections made a software programming error that wasn’t caught for a decade. Over this period, the error allowed thousands of prisoners to be released before their sentences were completed.

In December 2012, the father of a stabbing victim learned his son’s assailant was about to be released and spent five minutes double-checking the department’s math. He proved they’d made a mistake. When confronted by the anguished father, the department recognized the release date was wrong not only for this inmate, but for many others. Because the father had complained, they kept his son’s assailant incarcerated for the full duration of his sentence, but they didn’t fix the sentencing problem for other prisoners. So for another three years, prisoners continued to be released early.

During this period of time, two people—a 17-year-old boy and a mother of two—died from crimes alleged to have been committed by prisoners who should have been incarcerated at the time of the offense.

By the time this story became public in December 2015, approximately 3,000 prisoners had been released before completing their sentences. Everyone in the state of Washington wanted to know how DOC could make such an error and, most importantly, how it could knowingly continue that error.

Gov. Jay Inslee, a Democrat, announced that he would launch an investigation.

State Sen. Mike Padden and I serve as the chair and vice chair, respectively, of the Senate Law and Justice committee. We were concerned about the scope of the governor’s inquiry. We learned that his investigators would not be obtaining witness statements and would not take testimony under oath. DOC is part of the executive branch, and the DOC secretary during the key time of this error was Gov. Inslee’s appointee. Sen. Padden and I ultimately concluded that the Senate, as part of a co-equal, independent branch of government, needed to launch a separate, independent investigation.

The governor’s final report was issued while the senate investigation was still underway. It placed heavy blame on midlevel managers and poor legal advice from the attorney general’s office but largely absolved top levels of management.

What did the Law and Justice Committee investigation uncover?

In addition to the mistakes made by midlevel managers and an assistant attorney general, we learned that former DOC Secretary Bernie Warner’s woeful mismanagement set the groundwork for delays in fixing the software responsible for the early release of prisoners. We learned his mismanagement led to a communications breakdown, a collapse of IT governance structures, high turnover and the loss of legacy personnel. We learned that despite being warned regarding some of these issues by then-deputy secretary Dan Pacholke, Secretary Warner did nothing.

We learned Secretary Warner over-prioritized his STRONG-R project to find a “next generation dynamic risk-assessment tool” to the point where it “blocked out the sun” for other projects essential to the core mission of DOC and that Assessments.com, a contractor described as “consistently over-budget” and “under-deliver[ing],” was insisted on by Secretary Warner for the project. We learned the CEO for this company had an arrest record for cocaine possession, violating a domestic order, resisting arrest and numerous DUIs. Former Chief Information Officer Kit Bail stated about this CEO, “he’s a crook and Bernie brought him back.” But at the Senate hearings, we learned that Bail used the word “crook” not because of the arrests but because of his pattern for how he did business with the state.

The governor’s report stated that “no one” had suggested that Secretary Warner’s management was a contributing factor to the perpetuation of the software fix delays. The senate investigation heard testimony from several witnesses that Secretary Warner’s management was a factor in the delays. In addition, Pacholke (who had by our hearings succeeded Warner as DOC secretary) testified that “Mr. Warner did several things to set the context in which this error could occur and go undetected for some time.”

The governor’s report stated that STRONG-R “did not require a significant allocation of resources.” Senate witnesses described IT governance as being consumed or evaporated by the project. Pacholke testified that it led to the turnover of a lot of senior employees and legacy talent “at a minimum.”

The governor’s report stated that former assistant secretary Denise Doty “never advised Secretary Warner… of the problem.” In senate testimony Doty declared the governor’s report was an inaccurate reflection of her comments. She did not state that she “never advised” Warner but that she had no specific recollection of doing so. She insisted it “was certainly my practice” and “I wouldn’t have any reason NOT to.”

The governor’s report put heavy emphasis on the department’s former IT business manager David Dunnington deleting the “must fix” designation for the software problem. In Senate testimony, Dunnington revealed it only seemed deleted because the governor’s investigators did not understand how the system worked. In his signed witness statement, Mark Ardiel, an employee of Sierra Cedar (a private contractor for DOC) explained the disappearance of “must fix” in the same way, noting that “although the ‘must fix’ designation appears to disappear from the record, the report only shows items that are changed so if the same status is maintained, it would not be shown on the report for later dates.”

The governor’s report also emphasized that on his own, Dunnington reduced the severity level of the software fix. In his Senate testimony, Pacholke confirmed Dunnington was “complying with a directive” and meeting minutes reveal that the decision for the downgrade was made as part of a broader policy change at a meeting. Dunnington did not attend.

Governor Inslee’s DOC oversight failed to adequately adjust for a conflict of interest arising from a personal relationship between Secretary Warner and a member of the governor’s staff. Such conflicts are known to cause people (out of fear or affection) to avoid reporting negative information or to fail to see or seek that information. This could explain why when Secretary Warner announced he was leaving DOC, the governor hailed him as “a model for how to run a corrections department.”

The Senate investigation also concluded that the legislature needs to examine ways in which we could simplify our sentencing laws without reducing punishment or compromising public safety.

The Senate Law and Justice Committee majority report provides a much more complete picture of why almost 3,000 prisoners were released early and what should be done about it. Already there is evidence that the report is having an impact. Following its release, the DOC announced they will not be renewing their contract with Assessments.com.

For the sake of public safety and accountability, let’s hope other lessons are learned as swiftly.

Steve O’Ban is a Republican state senator from Pierce County, Washington.

Mike Padden: DOC, governor must accept responsibility for deadly prison releases

By Erik Smith | Published on June 11, 2016

This guest column was published in The Spokesman-Review, June 11, 2016.

By Sen. Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley

Sen. Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley

Sen. Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley

One of the most disturbing things about the deadly prison-release scandal at the Department of Corrections is the way top state officials keep telling us it wasn’t their fault. The governor’s investigators went to great lengths to blame midlevel workers for the mistaken early release of some 3,000 robbers, rapists and murderers – ignoring the failure of leadership that caused one of the worst cases of malfeasance in Washington state history.

Two people are dead because of these early releases – one of them, Caesar Medina, a teenage boy shot to death in Spokane. Add to that numerous crimes – we still don’t know how many – and it is easy to see why anyone might be reluctant to take responsibility. But the problems really did start at the top, with the former corrections secretary appointed by Gov. Jay Inslee, and with the people in the governor’s office who were supposed to manage the manager. The governor could do much to begin the healing process by acknowledging his staff and the executive branch failed the people of this state.

As chairman of the Senate Law and Justice Committee, I oversaw the Legislature’s independent investigation into the DOC debacle. We represented the public and we took that responsibility seriously. We invoked rarely used powers of subpoena, hired outside counsel, reviewed more than 100,000 pages of documents, gathered sworn statements from witnesses and heard testimony under oath during extensive public hearings. Our inquiry offered the public an opportunity it would not have gotten otherwise, to learn what happened in an unfiltered way. And because everything we generated is a matter of public record, anyone who doubts our conclusions can check our work.

There were two major mistakes. The first occurred in 2002 when the agency misinterpreted a ruling from the state Supreme Court and programmed its computers incorrectly. Felons who earned special add-on “enhancements” to their sentences for sex crimes and use of weapons were released an average two months early, some as much as two years. But the more deplorable failure came a decade later, when DOC learned of the problem and did nothing for another three years.

Some agency employees recognized their responsibility. They identified the problem, requested a computer fix and notified their superiors, just as they were supposed to do. These were the midlevel employees who were reprimanded by the governor for not doing enough. Yet our investigation demonstrated DOC executives had sufficient knowledge to take action themselves. Some knew about the early release problem in detail. Some knew enough to make further inquiries, including former Secretary Bernie Warner. And some tell curious stories, like a former risk manager who was supposed to catch problems like this one and can’t explain how she missed it.

An assistant attorney general offered an unfortunate written opinion that the agency could continue releasing prisoners early until a fix was completed. But it was the responsibility of DOC executives to think about it carefully. If we are to believe what we have been told, not a single one sat upright and said, wait a second, what if one of these prisoners commits a new crime?

Even if every executive had been incompetent, the problem should have been fixed as a matter of routine. But DOC executives irresponsibly diverted resources from computer software maintenance to a grandiose risk-management project that may never be completed. None of them bothered asking whether anything important was being put on hold.

Worse yet, one of the DOC execs who knew about the early-release issue took a job on the governor’s staff – and as corrections policy adviser to Inslee, she made no inquiries either. The governor’s office ignored numerous warning signs of mismanagement, like reorganizations that made no sense and mass resignations in IT. The fact that Warner was dating a senior official in the Inslee administration would have made it difficult for anyone to ask tough questions, and may explain why no one did.

Warner is the prime actor in this disaster, but the context is the culture of apathy within DOC and the governor’s office. It is dismaying to hear a spokeswoman for the governor claim the Senate’s investigation revealed nothing new, even though the governor’s own report on the matter absolved most agency managers and ignored the governor’s responsibility. Our proposals for next session include legislation spelling out the governor’s duty to manage state agencies. If it takes a law to convince people to accept their responsibility – that’s a place to start.

State Sen. Mike Padden, a Republican, represents the 4th Legislative District, which includes Spokane Valley.

 

 

Randi Becker: Education funding a big, contentious topic

By Erik Smith | Published on June 08, 2016

This guest column was published in the Eatonville Dispatch, June 8, 2016.

By Sen. Randi Becker, R-Eatonville

Sen. Randi Becker, R-Eatonville

Sen. Randi Becker, R-Eatonville

The state Legislature adjourned its 2016 session on March 29. Since that time, I’ve had a number of local school officials and constituents ask me about progress toward fully funding our public schools. I thought it might be helpful to provide both a recap of and road map for this issue.

In 2012, the Washington State Supreme Court ruled that the Legislature was not fulfilling its constitutional obligation to provide for public schools. This ruling came in the case of McCleary v. State of Washington – usually shortened to “McCleary” by legislators and education leaders, in case you’ve heard that term and wondered what it means.

The current school-funding system has local districts relying heavily on levies (meaning voters, and local taxpayers) to make up for state underfunding. This has led to inequitable levels of opportunity for students between neighboring school districts, as well as pay disparities for staff.

Over the past four years, the Legislature has put $4.6 billion more toward education.

In 2016, we created an Education Funding Task Force. Its job will be to define “basic education,” learn how much each local school district is paying for basic education (especially things that should be paid for at the state level), and ensure that our public-school employees are properly compensated.

The Education Funding Task Force is made up of a representative from the governor’s office and Democrats and Republicans from both the Senate and House of Representatives. This task force has met twice since the Legislature adjourned. On April 20, the state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction laid the groundwork for their mission and gave a presentation on current school district reporting and accounting procedures. At the May 11 meeting, the procedure for selecting a consultant to analyze public school staff compensation, as well as salary trends and data elements, were discussed. The next meeting is scheduled for June 8.

Also on May 11, there was a meeting to adopt the “progress report” that was sent to the Supreme Court. Although the Legislature is on course to meet the timetable set by the court in its initial McCleary ruling, the justices have insisted on tracking this matter at intervals (and have made it clear they think lawmakers should be moving faster).

All legislative committees post meeting schedules, meeting documents and TVW links. You may visit leg.wa.gov to follow the progress yourself.

Education funding is a big – and sometimes contentious – topic. Our goals are to ensure that every kid in Washington has access to a great education, regardless of where she or he lives. While there is still a long way to go toward a solution, much has been done already. There are a lot of moving parts and we need to proceed thoughtfully.

The upcoming legislative session (it begins in January 2017) will see many of the final puzzle pieces put into place. Stay tuned.

Randi Becker, a Republican from Eatonville, is the state senator from the Second Legislative District that includes south Pierce County.

 

 

 

Mike Padden: We’re already covered — The federal Voting Rights Act of 1965 makes a state law unnecessary

By Erik Smith | Published on June 02, 2016

This guest column was published in The Inlander of Spokane, June 2, 2016.

By Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley

Sen. Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley

Sen. Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley

The admirable cause of civil rights is being misused by partisans in the progressive camp as a tool to bash Republicans. We saw it happen last month in the Inlander, in an opinion column headlined “Blockin’ the Vote: How Republicans in Olympia continue to fail our democracy” — as if one party opposes discrimination and the other is in favor. It is a simplistic argument founded on thin air, parroting one of the nobler phrases of the civil rights era — and it is one of the most cynical wedge issues ever devised.

Washington really does have a Voting Rights Act. You’ve probably heard of it — it is called the Voting Rights Act of 1965. This law was passed by Congress, not the state Legislature, but it applies in all 50 states. Over the last half-century it has done an outstanding job of eliminating blatant forms of discrimination, like poll taxes and literacy tests. It also covers a more subjective form of perceived discrimination, the use of at-large voting or redistricting that could make it harder to elect minority political candidates.

We saw the law used recently in Yakima. The American Civil Liberties Union claimed at-large voting for the city council disenfranchised Latino voters. The city drew new district boundaries and elected Latino candidates for the first time in its history. The ACLU sued under federal law. The ACLU got what it wanted. So why do we need a state law?

That is the real question in the debate. It stumps many of us in the Legislature. We have yet to hear how a state law will make anything better, but there are many reasons to think it will make things worse.

This proposal, modeled after a similar law in California, makes it easier to sue and win, regardless of whether real discrimination is taking place. It eliminates a crucial test under federal law — plaintiffs don’t have to prove redistricting will improve anything. It creates a whole new basis for lawsuits — alleged discrimination against people who speak a particular language. And it leaves many terms vague, allowing litigation to determine what the law really means.

Now get this: The proposal allows plaintiffs to recover legal costs from taxpayers when they win, and shields them from having to pay when they lose. In California, this law has meant open season on local governments, right down to school boards and hospital districts. An analysis last year of 25 such lawsuits showed at least $13.8 million in public money has been paid to plaintiffs’ attorneys.

These are reasonable concerns, and it’s probably why advocates for this legislation never talk about them. Makes it easier to take political potshots. We can be dismayed but not surprised when arguments like these are made — it is an election year. ♦

Sharon Brown: Olympia misses another chance for quicker project reviews, job creation

By Erik Smith | Published on May 13, 2016

This guest column was published in the Tri-Cities Business News, May 13, 2016.

By Sen. Sharon Brown, R-Kennewick

Sen. Sharon Brown, R-Kennewick

Sen. Sharon Brown, R-Kennewick

Economic growth in Washington rests, in part, on political oversight. Our state faces a number of infrastructure and trade opportunities that, if approved in a timely manner, can create more jobs and a stronger local economy.  Unfortunately, many of these projects stall due to a permit process that shackles them with red tape and delays.

Streamlining this process is critical to unlocking our state’s economic potential, which is why during the recently-completed 2016 legislative session, I introduced Senate Bill 6527 to inject much-needed accountability into the review of local infrastructure projects.

Under my regulatory “shot clock” proposal, government agencies conducting State Environmental Policy Act, or SEPA, reviews would be held to a 30-day completion process. It would also require completion of environmental project reviews no later than 12 months following submission of project applications not requiring a federal review.

These requirements are critical. For years the significant overlap between state and federal reviews has resulted in the unnecessary loss of time and investments regarding local infrastructure projects.

Ironically, the legislative clock ran out before my colleagues had a chance to take up this bill, though it did pass the Senate Trade and Economic Development Committee. The measure holds tremendous promise for our economy, and deserves another review in our next session.

For one, private investments in infrastructure and trade projects make up a large part of Washington’s economy. We depend on these resources to maintain good-paying jobs, create new ones and sustain healthy economic revenue.

If investments are made — and ultimately lost —in a project due to shortcomings of the review process, that is a direct failure of the state’s objective to remain competitive.

Failure to do so means taking those resources that would otherwise go to Washingtonians and our local infrastructure, and instead handing them over to competing markets such as British Columbia, which has significantly increased efforts around trade development, including exports.

The unpredictability of Washington’s review process also eliminates incentives for investors. We want Washington to attract a wide variety of private investors to bolster our economic productivity. But currently, infrastructure projects awaiting both federal and state review are sitting in an open-ended process that fails to assure investors that these projects will be completed in a timely, cost-effective manner.

Missing out on these critical investments affects more than just local businesses and investors; it also hurts Washington families.

In a recent interview, former U.S. maritime administrator David Matsuda cited Canada’s ‘shot clock’ approach with a set time limit for examining environmental impacts. Absent a finite timeframe in our state, he said, jobs will go elsewhere.

Since becoming a state senator, my top concern has been enacting policies that make Washington more competitive and allow our employers to maintain and create new jobs. So I worry about what happens if we cannot streamline the process to get more of these competitive projects up and running in a timely manner.

Employers tell me — and the facts bear this out — that failure to act will result in projects becoming too costly and eventually disappearing altogether, resulting in job cuts for many local families already struggling to make ends meet.

I recognize the importance of reviewing infrastructure projects in our state and the value all Washingtonians place on our environmental quality of life.

The regulatory reform I proposed is about taking a common-sense approach that incorporates public feedback, yet provides predictable deadlines. It is not necessary to make a choice between regulatory reform and the environment.  It is possible to incorporate both.

History confirms that we can streamline the regulatory process in a meaningful way and provide much-needed predictability to developers.  When the Interstate 5 Bridge over the Skagit River collapsed, we were able to streamline the rebuilding process and get commuters back on the road, without having to sacrifice the environment.  We have proven that we can do this.

We need to codify that process so such streamlining is approached not haphazardly but on a case-by-case basis. My legislation takes a balanced approach that focuses on introducing accountability and predictability into the process.

Washington has attracted turnkey infrastructure projects that, if unshackled from an inefficient review process, can spur significant economic growth and job creation.

It’s disappointing lawmakers this year missed a prime opportunity to amend this process and finally set free our state’s true economic potential. Working families can’t afford to wait much longer.

Sen. Sharon Brown, R-Kennewick, is chair of the Senate Trade and Economic Development Committee.