Exclusive: Inslee looks ahead to goals, metrics and financial challenges

The governor hopes to make significant progress on education this year, in part with money from closing unproductive tax exemptions. But hard-to-control factors are in play.
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Governor Jay Inslee met with Crosscut editors and reporters on Wednesday.

The governor hopes to make significant progress on education this year, in part with money from closing unproductive tax exemptions. But hard-to-control factors are in play.

Gov. Jay Inslee has a plan of attack to his new job. Actually it's more of a philosophical approach.

It's a broad approach that still needs a lot of details to be filled in: really a bunch of questions.

Inslee wants measurable goals, results that can be quantified. What those targets will be still has to be mapped out. To do so, he needs lots of numbers — some that will come soon, and some that will be a long time coming.

Six weeks into his term, the new governor discussed the term ahead with Crosscut's editors and Olympia writers for 45 minutes Wednesday, shortly before he held a press conference that covered several topics.

In his exclusive interview with Crosscut, the governor talked a lot about "metrics" — setting up baselines and targets to improve those baselines and performance throughout the state's agencies. Sort of like a CEO.

One big metric, he said, will be achieving an improvement in the high school graduation rate. He noted that change won't come quickly. 

But that metric-based approach is currently haunted by many X factors —  a revenue forecast that is three weeks away, a divided Legislature with radically opposed philosophies, possible large federal cuts to Washington that could begin to hit home next week, massive financial questions that will have to be addressed in his own yet-to-be-unveiled plans.

All the politics and economics are outside of almost everyone's control.

And, Inslee said, "I'm not sure metrics apply to the legislative session." 

Consequently, Inslee talked Wednesday about items that are works in progress, rather than mapped-out plans. These included:

  • Last year's Washington Supreme Court ruling that the state is not adequately supporting K-12 education. Republican legislators believe reforms are needed with $900 million or less in extra cash in 2013-2015, none to be raised by new taxes. Democrat legislators believe possibly $1.4 billon is needed in 2013-2015 to tackle reforms that are mostly in place. Democrats believe teacher salary hikes are needed more than Republicans do. 

Both sides have talked about tapping the state's rainy day fund, shifting costs to the state's transportation fund and budget cuts. Democrats want to close some yet-to-be-identified tax exemptions, prevent some sunsetting taxes from expiring, and look at some new taxes. Republicans are dead set against keeping the expiring taxes and allowing new ones.

Inslee tentatively expects an extra $1 billion is needed for education fix-it work in 2013-2015.

  • He wants to close some tax exemptions, but has not identified specific ones yet. Realistically closing exemptions, which has received lip service but little action in the Legislature, would likely provide $200 million to $300 million. He is still working on how to handle the remaining shortfall as well, noting that March 20's revenue forecast is needed before the pieces can be nailed down. 

Sequestration — the automatic federal budget cuts that could go into effect on Friday unless Congress resolves its current budget showdown — is another unknown with the loss  of a major chunk of federal funding to Washington. Inslee discussed the federal standoff at greater length in his press conference; he noted that the cuts would further hurt the state's economy to the point that its in-state revenue sources will be hurting as well. Inslee put the estimated economic damage at $3.2 billion. 

"It's a real human impact," he said. Possibly 1,000 Hanford workers could be on unpaid leaves for weeks. The U.S. Navy-related employees in Kitsap County would lose big portions of their incomes. Possibly 1,300 women would not get breast cancer exams. Some teacher jobs would be in jeopardy.

  • Another metric-based analysis on Inslee's radar screen is whether Washington should support or block a coal-export port at Bellingham with numerous coal-laden trains traversing the state each day.

Inslee values his clean-energy reputation. While Washington is slowly phasing out its sole remaining coal power plant, it could end up boosting similar plants in China. But the coal port and trains could boost a state economy struggling to recover.

"I don't think this is a clear-cut environment versus jobs [issue]. There are also negative jobs impacts," Inslee said.

A potential negative impact is American coal providing cheap power to Chinese airplane manufacturers competing with Boeing, Inslee speculated. No timetable is set yet to complete that economic and environmental analysis.

"We're going to have to ask ourselves what the ramifications are," he said.

Inslee repeatedly emphasized long-term results in governing, at one point identifying a lack of long-term thinking as one of the political challenges he faced. 

Asked what he might have learned from talking with earlier governors, Inslee took a shot at recent suggestions that he might not be hiring top staff quickly enough. He said previous governors have told him to "hire good people and don't let the press stampede you into early decisions." He said his administration is engaged in a very diligent hiring process. 

Crosscut has expanded its coverage of Olympia, including the state Legislature and new Gov. Jay Inslee. To read all our stories, go to Crosscut's Olympia 2013 page.


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About the Authors & Contributors

John Stang

John Stang

John Stang is a freelance writer who often covers state government and the environment. He can be reached on email at johnstang_8@hotmail.com and on Twitter at @johnstang_8