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Originally published Tuesday, July 20, 2010 at 4:53 PM

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Guest columnist

Time to resize Washington state government's footprint

The economic downtown has put Washington's flawed approach to budgeting in the spotlight. State Auditor Brian Sonntag argues it's time to put aside partisan differences and resize government's footprint.

Special to The Times

CITIZENS demand, expect and deserve a state government that is lean, nimble and practical.

For such a time as this, those of us in public service have an opportunity to work together to reassess how state services align with citizens' expectations and to fundamentally reform how government does business.

We need to resize government's footprint to reflect what it can and should do, balanced with what it can afford to do. We will not get there unless we stop, now, the petty partisan bickering that erodes citizens' trust in government and inhibits meaningful solutions to our greatest challenges.

The issue of state governance is just too important to let political division get in the way of necessary change.

President John F. Kennedy said: "Let us not seek a Republican answer or a Democratic answer, but the right answer. Let us accept our own responsibility ... "

The state's financial challenges are daunting. The required decisions to confront them are tough. But we can't wait any longer to make them.

Our work at the Office of State Auditor uniquely positions us to understand the state's broad financial condition. For example, we know even in good economic times as well as bad, the state has not systematically funded all its long-term financial obligations.

This raises serious concerns about the state's ability to meet future funding commitments without significant action.

Long-term challenges include:

• The two oldest employee pension systems — Public Employment Retirement System (PERS) 1 and Teachers Retirement System (TRS) 1 — have a combined unfunded liability of more than $8 billion. That means the state doesn't have money set aside to pay that much in promised benefits to pensioners in those two systems. This was brought on by continuous underfunding and recent investment losses. Since the plans are made up of the longest-serving public employees and teachers, it won't be long before the bill comes due.

• An $11 billion unfunded liability in workers' compensation funds that pay cost-of-living increases to disability pensions for injured workers and their dependents.

• A $4 billion liability in the health- and life-insurance benefits paid to retired public employees without any accumulation of revenue to pay for it.

Unless these and other long-term financial obligations are dealt with, state government cannot sustain itself.

The state faces more immediate issues as well.

Budget reductions and new taxes enacted by the Legislature earlier this year to help make ends meet won't be enough. Tax revenues continue to fall short. The state faces a new budget imbalance now projected at $3 billion.

An anticipated $460 million in federal funds that could help balance the state budget may not be coming after all, if a divided Congress fails to act.

To deal with the dilemma, the governor statutorily has only two choices — calling the Legislature into special session to act on the financial problems or ordering immediate across-the-board budget reductions.

This latest fiscal emergency should serve as a clarion call for state leaders to step up and transform state government.

We can no longer balance the state budget by nibbling at the edges, reducing some services and imposing some additional taxes.

We must move beyond just tackling the latest cash-flow crisis. We must set a long-term vision for the state. For that, we need big thinking, bold ideas and courageous action.

We need to set a new normal for state government in which:

• Government sets priorities based on citizen expectations.

• Government pays only for the priority programs and services it can afford, and reduces or eliminates what it can't.

• We create a centralized financial-management system to provide needed and effective oversight and accountability over all state expenditures and financial activities.

• We end the "bow wave." We've seen too many instances when new programs are created without a means to pay for them.

• We establish comprehensive strategic planning to guide all programs and functions using a consistent long-term vision to meet the core mission of the state.

• We make a strong commitment to open, transparent government and ensure citizens are better-informed and listened to.

This reset will take leadership and courage. But it can be done. It must be done.

As social reformer Susan B. Anthony once said: "Cautious, careful people ... always casting about to preserve their reputations ... can never effect reform."

It is time to end the current era of political polarization and extreme partisanship. We must transform government together. We must put aside the premise of "I'm right, you're wrong." We must do what is right instead of doing what makes the other side look bad.

I learned early in my public-service career that doing your job is the best politics you've got. To me, it has meant that public officials who do what is right usually are rewarded at the ballot box.

Brian Sonntag is Washington state auditor.

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