Our public institutions have taken some hits lately — both financially and in the public’s opinion. Restoring public trust and funding vital public services will take creativity and bold leadership. Gov. Chris Gregoire’s recent announcement on education reform might be the kind of move to get it done.
The governor's proposal, which would consolidate the state’s education bureaucracies under a newly created state Secretary of Education, is reminiscent of another governor and another large bureaucracy that lacked public support and funding. Then, as now, there were huge needs and a public that didn’t believe their money was being well spent. Then, as now, the people had spoken at the ballot box that the government needed to live within its means and not ask for more.
In 1999, Gov. Gary Locke and the legislature were dealt a huge blow from Initiative 695. The state faced aging roads, bridges, and ferries — and a public that thought the state had enough of their money. Worse, the public believed money was wasted on an ineffective bureaucracy that was not accountable to anyone.
So Locke did what all leaders do in this situation — convene a Blue Ribbon Commission. These commissions generally say two things: we need more money and we need to reorganize. This Blue Ribbon Commission recommended a 9 cent gas tax increase, which the legislature passed and put on the 2002 ballot as Referendum 51. The measure created a Transportation Accountability Board to monitor the spending on 100 projects and over $3 billion in revenue. Referendum 51 got clobbered at the polls. On the same ballot, state voters again reduced vehicle license fees while Seattle voters approved $1.7 billion in license fee revenue for the Seattle Monorail Authority. While Seattle bucked the trend, the state’s voters were very clearly against any tax increases.
It was clear that systemic change was needed if the state had any hope of catching up with our infrastructure needs.
At this time the director of the Washington State Department of Transportation reported directly to the five-member State Transportation Commission. The governor had very little control over the transportation bureaucracy, much like the case today with the education bureaucracy. So if a governor wanted to be the “transportation governor,” he or she could not even appoint his or her own director.
Because Locke was understandably frustrated with getting the blame for a system largely out of his control, he supported an effort to have the WSDOT director report directly to the governor – which is the case today. Former legislator Sid Morrison retired as director of WSDOT and Locke brought in Doug MacDonald to change the culture of the department and do a better job of communicating to the public. In fact, the department was soon nicknamed the “Department of Project Delivery and Accountability.” Project information was made available to the public online so people could understand how projects were funded and whether they were on time and within budget.
Once these reforms were in place and WSDOT was bringing in smaller projects on time and within budget — and within full public view — it was time to take the next step. The Transportation Partnership package was born. First, the legislature passed a 5 cent gas tax in 2003 — recall the “your nickel, watch it work” signs — and then a 9 cent gas tax package in 2005 phased in over time in 3 percent increments. The 2005 package is the source of funding for the Alaskan Way Viaduct Replacement, the 520 Bridge Replacement, a number of other construction projects, and considerable maintenance.
But anti-tax populism is strong in Washington state and there was a serious effort to turn back these gas taxes. Conservative talk-show hosts John Carlson and Kirby Wilbur did their best to kill the package, but the public in the end supported the 9.5 cent gas tax increases and turned back Initiative 912. The arguments against the tax increase were familiar: WSDOT is a bloated bureaucracy and they have enough of your money. But in the end, enough voters believed the projects were needed and that WSDOT could build them.
Gregoire’s moves on education seem to come from the same playbook. The reality of the moment makes two things very clear: 1. The election of 2010 was a clear demonstration that the voters want reform and accountability in advance of any request for more revenue. While some will say the new taxes were repealed because of heavily funded campaigns and disinformation, I believe the distrust and frustration of the electorate is real and should be heard. 2. It is hard to see how the state can balance the over $4 billion biennium deficit by only cuts without compromising the health and safety of our citizens, and the competitiveness of our state.
Given these realities, Gregoire’s education plan makes perfect sense. Here’s what I hope she will do:
She should work with the legislature to craft a ballot measure consolidating current state education functions under a newly created Secretary of Education appointed by the governor. Early learning, K though 12, and higher education will be aligned under the new Department of Education.
There should be accountability measures, and cost savings through elimination of some boards and consolidation of others. And finally, a proposal to raise revenue in order to accomplish the goals set out in the plan.
There is a lot of rough road between the idea and the reality, and the status quo always has more of a constituency than change. The current Superintendent of Public Instruction, Randy Dorn, was elected statewide and must be part of the equation. Rather than being allowed to drift along in a kind of bureaucratic limbo, his post should be put up for elimination by a vote of the people as part of the overall reorganization. The people need to be able to decide if they want an elected Superintendent of Public Instruction.
The governor has been in Olympia a long time and has been criticized in the past that she has failed to shake up the status quo. But difficult times can create great leaders. Whether she can translate her policy ideas into reality and restore public trust will define her legacy in Washington state.
It would be hard to find another governor who has been dealt such a bad hand of deficits both in voter faith and in the financial realm. But in that lies her opportunity. She should take it.