To begin the new year, Gov. Chris Gregoire seized the microphone and dominated the stage. She shook off her "I hate my budget" drone and released a series of major, controversial, and — in some instances — overdue policy initiatives. As a result, she had her best week since the recession settled in three years ago.
She framed the debate, got people talking about what she wanted them to discuss, and put the Legislature on notice. Gregoire intends to get things done this session. And she’s not going to settle for tweaks and twiddles in an unsustainable status quo.
The week before a legislative session typically resembles the quiet hours before a major engagement. Leaders huddle with staff. Lobbyists and interest groups plot strategy. Reporters write session previews. It’s a time for preparation, platitudinal speculation, and uneasy anticipation. Into this vacuum, Gregoire rolled out substantive proposals addressing payroll taxes, education reform, and the ferry system. Without cash, the governor offered ideas to stimulate job creation and streamline government.
Begin with her plans for restructuring education governance. Gregoire promoted a single cabinet-level agency to deal with education, from pre-kindergarten through the college years. It makes sense. What we have now is fragmentation and division. There are too many hands on the tiller, striving to steer to safe harbor and avoid scrutiny, controversy, or accountability for their pet interests.
Putting it all together may look like an overreach. It’s not. The governor’s comprehensive approach responsibly reflects a new model emphasizing seamless, life-long learning. One troublesome element: She would have the elected superintendent of public instruction report to her appointed cabinet secretary. That won’t work and it won’t happen. Elected officials are responsible only to the voters, regardless of where you put them in the organization chart.
If we want to rationalize education governance, putting authority and accountability with the governor — and we should — let’s do it right: Amend the Constitution and get rid of the extraneous elected educator. It’s not a radical idea. Only 14 states elect their chief education administrator.
Sticking with the education theme, Gregoire also enthusiastically endorsed the plans of her higher education funding task force. The group’s three-pronged approach embraces tuition-setting authority for the four-year colleges; tax incentives for individuals and businesses to contribute to a private endowment for student scholarships and financial aid; and increased accountability measures to improve graduation rates.
Gregoire also proposes workers’ compensation reform and unemployment insurance tax relief, both critical to businesses facing sizable payroll tax increases this year. Even as they concentrate on budget balancing, lawmakers must remember that private sector job creation is the key to the economic recovery that will replenish state coffers.
The governor’s proposals move in the right direction. She’d reduce a scheduled tax increase for unemployment insurance, saving employers roughly $300 million this year. The plan dips into the state’s healthy unemployment trust fund, not something you can do for long, but possibly appropriate for now. She also proposes to implement business-backed workers’ compensation reforms to get injured workers back on the job more quickly. These are common-sense, even modest, reforms that have been demonstrated elsewhere to facilitate rehabilitation and hold down system costs.
Our broke and broken workers’ compensation system has been a major concern for years. The state auditor reports a $12.8 billion unfunded liability for supplemental pension cost-of-living increases to injured workers and their dependents. There’s a lot of money and lost opportunities at stake.The governor’s attention is welcome, if belated.
Gregoire rounded out the week by calling for a regional ferry district. That looks more like a nonstarter than a conversation starter. The ferries are a part of the state highway system. Her proposal pushes them into the transit world, where they don’t belong. She’s right. There are financial and operational problems with the ferry system, which is fraught with documented inefficiencies. But the state can’t offload them. It needs to solve them.
As details emerge, we’ll know more about the merits of the governor’s proposals. We’ll also get a handle on her commitment to push reforms through the long, difficult session. The energy in the executive last week, however, showed the optimism and leadership the moment requires.