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Washington Proposes Elimination of Boards, Commissions

Legislation

To offset a $6 billion budget shortfall, the state's legislature introduced two bills that would eliminate the groups' funding.

Associated Press | February 3, 2009

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The goal of the Washington Turfgrass Seed Commission is the "propagation and prosperity of the turfgrass seed."

That goal's two-year cost to state taxpayers - $94,000.

And that's only one expense; there are 470 other known boards and commissions, most vying for state money.

Gov. Chris Gregoire refers to them as "sacred cows" that need to be put out to pasture.

"Is there anybody here who believes we need half of those?" Gregoire asked while speaking at a recent economic summit in Seattle, Wash.

With titles like the Horse Racing Commission, the Acupuncture Ad Hoc Consulting Group or the Migratory Waterfowl Art Commission, boards and commissions are the latest item lawmakers are putting on the chopping block.

With the state facing an estimated $6 billion budget shortfall, it's all part of a needed "belt tightening." they say.

"A million here, a million there, pretty soon you're talking about real money," said Rep. Ross Hunter, chairman of the House Finance Committee.

Boards and commissions make up a "vanishingly small" portion of state's budget, said Hunter, D-Medina. But, he added, social services, education and other higher-profile programs shouldn't be the only ones to face stark cuts.

He recently proposed a bill that would eliminate all boards and commissions, some of which have been around since the 1930s. Each board and commission would then need to appear before the Legislature to justify their existence.

Until recently there wasn't a comprehensive list of existing boards and commissions. And there could be more - not all complied with a recent state audit.

While of many of these state panels perform necessary functions - college trustee boards, for example - a significant number represent special interest groups. In some cases there are boards and panels that perform overlapping or similar tasks - legislators say these need to be consolidated. Others were created to address issues that are no longer relevant.

Republicans say they like Hunter's idea, but some are skeptical.

Senate Minority Leader Mike Hewitt, R-Walla Walla, said he's all for cutting back government. But he said the Democrats' proposal amounts to a distraction. Hewitt agrees that talk of eliminating panels gives Democrats cover while they wait for their share of the federal economic stimulus package.

Cutting a wide swath of panels from the state ledgers may prove difficult, though.

Rep. Gary Alexander, R-Olympia, the ranking minority member on the House Appropriations Committee, said some board and commission appointments are made to repay interest groups and donors for campaign support. Over the years he said those interests have become entrenched.

"Somebody has been getting appointed to these things for years and years. It makes them important members of their communities," Hunter, the Finance chair, said.

There are also major differences in rhetoric between the governor and Democratic members of the Legislature over how to make the cuts.

Sen. Craig Pridemore, D-Vancouver, has proposed a bill that wouldn't eliminate anything. Instead, Pridemore's proposal calls for the suspension of 158 boards and commissions until 2011.

"As we go through the discussions about whether they should be suspended for two-and-a-half years, we're getting reminded about what their purposes were," Pridemore said. "The reality is that every one of these boards and commissions was created for a legitimate purpose."

The governor, on the other hand, is considering "eliminating up to half of the boards and commissions," said Karina Shagren, a spokeswoman for Gregoire.

Republicans say they aren't surprised.

"There's no direction or leadership around making the tough decisions," said Sen. Joe Zarelli, R-Ridgefield. "If we can't make the easy decisions about how to cut government spending, how on earth are we going to deal with the huger problem?"

House Majority Leader Lynn Kessler, D-Hoquiam, said despite their differences, some sort of reform will be passed by the Legislature this session.

"I'll tell you one thing - they're all kind of nervous," Kessler said. "I'm on the Arts Commission, and they're really nervous."

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