Legislative funding decisions must be made in public

The number of projects funded without full debate — through earmarks — has increased in Washington state. The system needs reform.

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“The state does not have a revenue problem, it has a spending problem.”

The late Sen. Jeannette Hayner, R-Walla Walla, made that point often when she served as the majority leader of the state Senate in the 1980s.

Not much has changed over the years.

While lawmakers were showing a modicum of spending restraint in the midst of the Great Recession, that seems to have eroded.

Earmarks, the special projects stuffed into legislation and often approved with little debate, are on the rise, according to Seattle Times political reporter Andrew Garber.

“After a long dry spell, state lawmakers loaded up on earmarks benefiting their home districts this year, spending more than $170 million on projects such as parks, museums, even wood-pellet stoves for schools — all with little public debate and often vague descriptions in the budget” Garber wrote.

Now, as Garber pointed out, $170 million is a relatively small amount in relation to the overall $3.6 billion spent in the two-year capital budget. Nevertheless, $170 million is still a lot of cash and it should be allocated just as thoughtfully as every other dollar spent.

The dollar amount of earmarks quadrupled in the Commerce Budget, from which most community grants are funded, since the 2007-2009 budget — from $29 million to $130 million.

Since earmarks essentially skirt the normal legislative process, it isn’t certain whether the projects approved that way are necessary and deserving of state funding.

Garber offered this example of the normal funding process for capital projects. Community college projects, he wrote, usually go through a competitive process in which all the proposals get ranked in order of importance. The list gets approved by the state Board for Community & Technical Colleges and then is sent to the Legislature for consideration.

The biggest earmarks in the current budget, according to Garber’s reporting, are $25 million to relocate community college health programs and nonprofit social service providers into Seattle’s PacMed Center, $14 million to help renovate former Navy barracks into affordable housing and $10 million to plan and buy land for a new university center in Everett run by Washington State University.

Those projects certainly could have some merit. If so, then those merits should have been vetted in public like the other requests.

The earmarks system needs to be dramatically reformed or eliminated.

It’s clear some lawmakers have a spending problem and aren’t capable of resisting using procedural options to ensure their pet projects get funding.

When the public’s business is done in the open, the better government functions.

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