Initiative finds lots for state to trim

OLYMPIA — Thank voters for the state toning up a bit of its flab.

Three years ago, they passed Initiative 900 to start wringing the financial fat and procedural flubber out of state agencies with detailed audits of their performance.

This past year it paid big dividends.

The State Auditor’s Office completed eight of these analyses, coming up with 430 recommendations to achieve up to $240 million in immediate and future savings for the audited agencies. It cost taxpayers $8 million.

“I think we’re getting a pretty good bang for the buck,” said Mindy Chambers, an auditor’s office spokeswoman.

Suggestions include axing underused ferry runs to reducing highway congestion by opening carpool lanes to all vehicles in noncommute hours. There are ideas to improve delivery of education and ways to ensure safety of patients receiving medical attention.

A study released last week recaps what happened to 27 recommendations made specifically to the Legislature involving transportation, education and health care. Roughly half were adopted or addressed this past session. Some will resurface in the 2009 session.

The scorecard, which Initiative 900 requires be done each year, reveals the extent to which the ballot measure is embedding itself into the minds and machinations of Washington’s bureaucracy.

“It is refocusing the conversation but we’re still in the baby steps of this program,” said Jason Mercier, director of the Center for Government Reform of the Washington Policy Center.

“We’re seeing a lot of attention paid to the recommendations. The proof is going to be whether these show up in the budget,” said Mercier, an ardent backer of the initiative.

Nearly 57 percent of the voters supported Initiative 900, a measure brought to the ballot by Tim Eyman of Mukilteo.

Supporters hoped the largest and most costly government entities would be examined first. Eventually every city, county, state, school and special district will undergo a performance audit.

The report issued last week covers audits done between August 2007 and February 2008. Lawmakers on the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Committee held a public hearing on its contents last week.

Four audits involve the Department of Transportation. One of those, of Washington State Ferries, said ferry runs with low ridership should be eliminated to save money on fuel and personnel.

Another looking at traffic congestion management ignited a political war of words with its finding that the state Department of Transportation did not consider reducing congestion a priority — and recommended it start doing so.

Gov. Chris Gregoire and Transportation Secretary Paula Hammond said congestion relief is important but would not be given a higher priority than making sure roads, bridges and ferries are safe for travelers.

The other four audits in the report covered the state Department of Health’s quality assurance program for health professionals, educational service districts, Sound Transit’s light rail program and the Port of Seattle’s oversight of construction projects.

Chambers said there’s no disappointment in having recommendations go unheeded.

“The full effect of this has yet to be seen,” she said. “The recommendations are supposed to become part of the budgeting process. They’ll have to come back and look at them.”

Mercier said there wasn’t enough time in this year’s 60-day session to fully consider all the recommendations. Next year, will offer a better picture of the Legislature’s desire to budget with an eye to improving performance and saving money.

Rep. Dan Kristiansen, R-Snohomish, a member of audit and review committee, said it is a mindset lawmakers must adopt.

“It’s one thing to find it,” he said referring to the government inefficiencies. “It’s another thing to act on it. Political will to act on those findings is what we’ve lacked.”

Reporter Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623 or jcornfield@heraldnet.com.

On the Web

To read the report, go to www.leg.wa.gov/JLARC and click on “Recent JLARC Reports.”

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