Collaboration in Civic Spheres

Archive for the ‘State Governments’ Category

Government Keeps Troubled-Doctors List A Secret

by Administrator April 2nd, 2010

By John Ryan

Over the past 20 years, health-care providers in Washington state have paid out more than $1 billion in malpractice lawsuits. That’s according to a federal database that helps hospitals avoid hiring incompetent caregivers. It’s a lot harder for members of the public to dig into the backgrounds of doctors and nurses.

Rest of story here.

Open Government West Explores, “Who’s The Data For?”

by Matt Rosenberg March 30th, 2010

According to the “Unlocking Government” report released recently by the consulting firm Deloitte Canada, core principles of open government include these:

  • Data should be easily accessible online. In today’s world, open access to data means that they should be easy to find.
  • Data need to be offered in accessible formats. If the government provides access to new information through an interactive map, for example, users should also be able to parse the actual raw data (to reuse it in a new application) from this source.
  • Collaboration between government agencies is important. Public leaders should expect their data to be combined with data from other sources and used in unique and novel ways and should approach the prospect in a spirit of collaboration and creativity.
  • Governments should be open about being open. Agencies should not quietly put data online. Rather, they should tell the public what they are doing and why, while seeking their participation and engagement.
  • These excellent guidelines help underscore that open government isn’t just for the usual suspects; namely, certain public officials, advocates, wonks and geeks. (I use these terms lovingly, FYI). At a Saturday, March 27 “unconference” session at Open Government West in Seattle, titled “Who Is The Data For?,” systems thinker and user experience designer Bryce Johnson (right) highlighted a range of answers. Designers and advocates should bear in mind, Johnson stressed, that among open government users are media; new residents including “English As A Second Language” immigrants; visitors and local tourists; families and other residents; government agencies; government vendors, and other businesses. Another point made during the conversation was that all the current emphasis on data and data sets shouldn’t obscure that documents – good old basic, revelatory public documents – need to be front and center also. That’s the idea behind a searchable database named Public Data Ferret that we’ve developed and located at its own special hub on this blog.

    What should the front door to the house of open government look like? The Beehive State has a pretty good sense of it. Utah has transformed its main state government Web portal into an impressive open government site. Utah walks the talk on easy access to and accessible formats for public data. The “dashboard,” or main page array of entry points by category is powerful in its simplicity, and relevance. Right away, the participant is invited to walk down hallways to “State Spending,” “State Contracts,” “Lobbyist Info,” “Campaign Contributions,” “Public Meetings,” “Data Sources,” and “Legislation.” This is the way to frame things. Click on “State Spending” and you go straight to the state’s public finance transparency site, where you can quickly access an appropriations reports menu and then among other items, the FY 2010-2011 appropriations summary, which is remarkably comprehensible. Utah’s getting the framing and the content right.

    “‘Will Of The People’ Often Subject To Tinkering”

    by Administrator February 25th, 2010

    By Jim Brunner
    Seattle Times political reporter

    OLYMPIA — As Gov. Chris Gregoire signed a bill clearing the way for tax increases Wednesday, the outcry was strong, just as it has been for the past several weeks as the measure inched through the Legislature.

    “Can’t you at least put up a facade that you are paying attention to what the voters are saying?” said Tim Eyman, sponsor of Initiative 960, after watching Gregoire sign the bill suspending for a year the requirement for a two-thirds vote of the Legislature or a public vote for any tax increase.

    At times, the rhetoric from I-960 supporters has been incredulous and angry, as though voter-approved initiatives were sacred texts, never to be rewritten.

    One Republican compared the Legislature’s actions to a “total solar eclipse.” Protesters have gathered on the Capitol steps and some lawmakers have received threatening e-mails, including one suggesting those who vote to overturn I-960 “should be hanged from the neck until dead.”

    But this is hardly the first time lawmakers have gone against the “will of the people” as expressed by initiatives.

    In the past decade, state lawmakers – Democrats and Republicans – have poked holes in voter-approved initiatives that restrained state spending, gave automatic raises to teachers and demanded more money for public schools, among others.

    Some of those measures won by much wider margins than I-960, which was approved by 51 percent of voters in 2007.

    “The people who complain about this always pick and choose which initiatives they are complaining about,” said Hugh Spitzer, an affiliate professor at the University of Washington Law School and co-author of a book on the state constitution, which lays out a balance of power between the public at large and elected officials.

    The state constitution says the initiative process is “the first power reserved by the people,” yet it allows the Legislature to rewrite any initiative with a two-thirds vote in the first two years. After that, it takes only a simple majority.

    It wasn’t always that way. Before a 1952 amendment, the constitution said the Legislature couldn’t make any changes to initiatives for two years.

    Curiously, given the strong feelings about initiatives today, the 1952 amendment was easily approved by voters. Judging from news coverage, it was scarcely controversial. An initiative legalizing the sale of yellow margarine – over the vehement protests of dairy farmers – proved far more divisive.

    Since then, lawmakers have amended or repealed at least 30 voter-approved initiatives, according to Washington Secretary of State Sam Reed’s office.

    In the past decade, it’s frequently been Democrats agitating against a series of tax limits implemented by voter initiatives, such as I-960. But Republicans have played a role, too.

    In 2000, the Legislature punched a big hole in Initiative 601, a 1993 measure that created a strict state spending cap. Basically, lawmakers decided to use budgetary shifts to get around the I-601 limit. The bill to make that possible received crucial support from GOP leaders in the state House, which at the time was evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans.

    Supporters and opponents of I-960 have spent a lot of time arguing about whether it should be given any more deference than the many others that have been watered down or repealed over the years.

    Democrats like to point to Initiatives 728 and 732, both approved by big margins in 2000. Those initiatives demanded that the Legislature grant automatic cost-of-living raises to teachers and dedicate money to reduce class sizes in public schools.

    Yet the Legislature suspended those requirements in lean times, and budget writers plan to do so again this year.

    Rep. Zack Hudgins, D-Tukwila, said he’s heard a lot of angry talk from Republicans about I-960’s suspension, yet “I didn’t hear that outrage” when the Legislature backed off the education initiatives.

    Republicans argue there are some big differences between those measures and I-960.

    The education initiatives gave no new funding to the state even though they required hundreds of millions a year in additional spending on schools. The voters-pamphlet statement on I-728 boasted that it could be funded “without raising taxes or taking money away from other programs.”

    When a 2004 initiative proposed raising the state sales tax by a penny to pay for better schools, voters overwhelmingly rejected it.

    Meanwhile, voters have endorsed I-960’s main provision — the two-thirds legislative vote requirement for tax increases — three times since 1993.

    “It should be hard to go against the will of the people. It shouldn’t be an easy thing,” said Rep. Ed Orcutt, R-Kalama.

    Orcutt noted that I-960 provides an “out” for legislators if they can’t get a two-thirds vote in the Legislature for tax increases. They can send any proposed taxes to the ballot for voters to approve. Democrats have ruled that out.

    In signing the bill suspending I-960 on Wednesday, Gregoire noted that voters had approved the measure before the current economic crisis.

    “They did it in a time when we weren’t facing the greatest recession in the state of Washington,” Gregoire said. The bill suspends the initiative until July 2011.

    Eyman who stood just behind Gregoire during the bill-signing ceremony, made a thumbs-down gesture and held his nose for the cameras. He’s already filed a new initiative to restore the two-thirds requirement for tax increases.

    While he’d expected lawmakers to throw out I-960’s restrictions on tax votes, Eyman said he was shocked they also axed “transparency” requirements, including advisory votes on any tax increases approved by the Legislature and a requirement that the names of lawmakers voting for tax increases be printed in voters pamphlets.

    Gregoire said those provisions were of questionable worth and printing the information in the pamphlets would be costly.

    Spitzer, the UW law professor, said initiatives place unrealistic demands on the Legislature, and it makes sense that lawmakers frequently need to revisit them.

    “I have a simple solution: Every initiative which institutes a new program must provide a tax source. Every initiative that cuts taxes must specify in detail which programs would be cut,” Spitzer said.

    That’s unlikely to happen.

    But the public this fall may get to judge the Legislature’s actions twice. Voters could be voting on Eyman’s latest initiative, assuming it qualifies for the ballot. And voters will get a chance to reshape the Legislature, with the entire state House up for election.

    Jim Brunner: 360-236-8267 or jbrunner@seattletimes.com