Article by Erik Smith. Published on Tuesday, August 30, 2011 EST.
You’d Never Know Actual Cost of Measure, Says ‘No’ Campaign - Asks OFM for Rewrite
SEIU home-care workers rally at the Capitol earlier this year.
[UPDATE Aug. 31, 4 p.m.: OFM reports that it is issuing a response to the no-on-1163 campaign. Details are not yet available.]
By Erik Smith
Staff writer/ Washington State Wire
OLYMPIA, Aug. 30.—Around the state Capitol you get the idea sometimes that people speak a different language. Yet even native-born speakers of government-ese might have a little trouble with the official state estimate for the cost of Initiative 1163, the union-backed home-care measure that appears on this fall’s ballot.
The actual cost to taxpayers is somewhere around $51 million the first two years. But you’d never know it if you look at the statement that will appear in the official Washington voters’ guide, complains Cindi Laws, chairwoman of the campaign against the measure.
If you read the report and you squint your eyes a little, you might get the idea the cost is about $30 million. But that’s over six years. So maybe it’s $10 million over two years. Or if you read the next sentence, you might get the idea it’s $4 million. You really can’t tell.
Just as likely, you’d give up before you got to the end of the first paragraph.
“I couldn’t figure it out,” Laws said. “And I have two college degrees.”
The no-on-1163 campaign is asking the state Office of Financial Management to do a rewrite. The whole idea behind those “fiscal impact statements” was to give the average Joe an idea of how much an initiative actually cost. The initiative’s critics say the state certainly blew it here.
Clear and Concise?
Or maybe it’s just that state agencies have a different idea of what plain English is all about. Back in 2002, lawmakers thought it might be a good idea if voters knew how much initiatives actually cost. They were getting a little tired of nice-sounding ballot-measure campaigns from special interest groups every couple of years that cost taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars, without explaining it to them beforehand. So they passed a law directing OFM to write reports that could be placed in the state voters’ pamphlet, the guide that is mailed to every registered voter in Washington just before every statewide general election.
The statements are supposed to make sense to the average reader. They are supposed to be written in “clear and concise language.” They are supposed to avoid legal and technical terms when possible. They’re supposed to contain a description “placing the estimated dollar amounts in context.” The law even says that if OFM can come up with a graphic or two to make things clearer, that would be good.
In other words, the Legislature was asking for the kind of job your typical newspaper reporter does every day, on deadline. But interpreting the rules was left to the Office of Financial Management. And you kind of get the idea that the state doesn’t have a copy editor.
A Costly Program
It’s not as if the previous fiscal statements have been compelling reading. They’ve been bone-dry and factual – what you expect from any government report. And like every other government document, they require a bit of work from any reader who wishes to translate them into the English language.
But this time around, this one doesn’t even provide the basic information that might make a translation possible, Laws complains.
The problem is that I-1163 is a little more complicated than usual, and the statement leaves out the most important part of the story. That’s the fact that this year’s measure re-enacts another initiative passed by Washington voters in 2008.
The original measure, I-1029, backed by the Service Employees International Union, required the state to launch a training program for every home care worker in the state, public and private. The state also was supposed to manage a testing and certification program for the workers who make it through the class.
The cost of the training program will be enormous, if the state ever gets around to launching it - some $51 million during the first two years alone, for the 40,000 workers on the state payroll. That’s according to an estimate earlier this year from the state budget office. The state would have to pick up the tab for those workers because of union contracts. Of that $51 million, about $31 million would come from the state general fund, and $20 million from the feds.
The other 20,000 or so workers in the private sector are on their own – which is why private home-care agencies, adult family homes and other private-sector employers are furious about the whole thing.
And the $51 million figure doesn’t count the millions of dollars that the workers themselves will have to pay the state for certification.
The Missing Context
Voters said yes by a huge margin three years ago, but when lawmakers got a look at the price tag, they bounced the idea right out of the state Capitol. The problem was that the initiative didn’t provide a dime to pay for the program - it didn’t raise any taxes or do anything else that might have generated public opposition. So it meant Washington lawmakers were supposed to come up with tens of millions of dollars just as they found themselves in the middle of the biggest fiscal crisis they have faced since the Great Depression.
At a time when they were slashing programs right and left, they weren’t about to launch a new one. They refused to spend a dime. Yet they didn’t repeal the initiative. They left the rules on the books. They just kept delaying their imposition. As things stand right now, the rules are supposed to kick in on Jan. 1, 2014. But no one really knows if they ever will.
This year SEIU essentially filed the same initiative all over again. There isn’t a funding source this time around, either.
But the statement doesn’t compare against the cost of doing nothing – which is what the Legislature has been doing since the 2008 election. Instead it compares against current law, even though it is uncertain that current law will ever take effect.
No Look at Big Picture
Julie Murray, the OFM analyst who wrote this year’s fiscal impact statements, argues a technical point. Even though the law says the statements are supposed to be written in plain language and provide context, there’s another passage OFM finds even more important. That part of the law says the statements “must describe any projected increase or decrease in revenues, costs, expenditures, or indebtedness that the state and local governments will experience if the ballot measure were approved by state voters.”
The way OFM sees it, the only way to carry out that duty is to compare against current law.
So the fiscal impact statement doesn’t look at the big picture. It just takes a look at the differences in implementation dates if the new initiative is passed and it calculates the changes in cost. Some workers would fall under the training requirements two years sooner. Some would fall under the requirements two years later. So OFM concludes that the additional state general-fund cost of I-1163 is $31.3 million over six years.
The statement doesn’t mention that the $31.3 million is an additional cost, over and above the cost of the program as it stands right now.
A Great Big Muddy Mess
Actually, even that $31.3 million figure is a little murky. The next line in the report says that the state would get an additional $18.4 million from the feds and from the certification fees that will come from the workers’ pockets. So you might get the idea that the cost is closer to $13 million. But the federal money doesn’t offset the state’s costs. It would be spent on the training as well. The statement doesn’t say it directly, though you might get the idea if you stared at it for a while.
The thing is, there probably isn’t a voter in the entire state who is going to bother doing that, complains Laws, who is director of the Washington State Residential Care Council, the state association of adult family homes. The only way you could decipher the statement is if you understood the underlying law. The whole statement is a great big muddy mess, she says.
And now that it looks like the state’s budget shortfall next year may be in the neighborhood of $2 billion, she says the state has an even more compelling duty to tell voters about the true cost.
“The state fiscal situation is more dire than ever, and so the need for an accurate fiscal note is even more important now,” she said.
Not Much Time
The no-on-1163 campaign wrote OFM last week urging it to rewrite the statement. In her letter, Laws points out that she had plenty of people look at it. They couldn’t make any sense of it, either. And of course, her point is that if voters understood how much the measure actually costs, they would vote no.
“If people knew it, they would vote against it – it’s in the high numbers.”
OFM has yet to respond. At this point, it appears that the clock may run out. Because of publication deadlines, the secretary of state’s office has to lock in the voters’ pamphlet weeks in advance, and it gives OFM an Aug. 31 due-date for the fiscal impact statements. That’s tomorrow.
After that point, there is a five-day window during which anyone might sue in court for changes to the fiscal impact statements, said Brian Zylstra, spokesman for the secretary of state’s office.
Laws says the no-on-1163 campaign is unlikely to do that. It costs big bucks to go to court. The campaign might be better off using the money to get the word out about the cost, she says.