Opinion

Budget situation could improve with greater accountability in state agencies | GUEST OPINION

This chart shows the growth of state lawsuit liability over the years. - Courtesy Graphic
This chart shows the growth of state lawsuit liability over the years.
— image credit: Courtesy Graphic

Several factors are influencing our state's tax collections outlook, which dictates the overall state budget. Unfortunately, the record $32.4 billion 2011-13 budget passed last May will likely be adjusted downward based on lagging tax collections due to continued job losses and hesitant consumers.

To be sure, several national and state issues are contributing to the steep decline in state tax collections, but faltering accountability and oversight at state agencies and staggering state lawsuit liability also play key roles.

The 2011-13 budget spent roughly $1.8 billion more than the 2009-11 spending plan, and included in the amount is $149.2 million for the state's two-year lawsuit liability. The total lawsuit fund set aside for 2011 alone is $76 million – up from $52 million in 2010 and has nearly tripled in cost since the $26 million set aside in 2006. This growth must be addressed as part of getting our fiscal house in order.

To be clear, I strongly believe people who lost their lives and/or lost their quality of life due to failures in state agency operations and protocol should be compensated. However, I think we would all rather see the nearly $150 million in funding spent on keeping community corrections officers in place, streamlining child protection services and addressing unsafe roadways to help prevent future tragedies.

I am deeply concerned that in addition to the claims I believe are valid, taxpayers are footing the bill for state agency missteps and outright mistakes, such as these few examples:

  • $130,000 awarded to an inmate for shoddy dental work at a state prison;
  • $174,000 to a woman the DOC forgot to let out of prison when her sentence was fulfilled;
  • $108,000 to ferry workers who sickened themselves by mixing bleach and ammonia together;
  • $4.8 million to children that were sexually and physically abused – the abuse was reported to Child Protective Services, which did nothing about the report despite the father admitting the abuse; and
  • $105,000 payout due to the State Patrol performing a SWAT Team raid on what they thought was an "illegal junkyard" when the owner of the yard had permits and licenses required to operate the business.

While budget writers are forcing state employees to take 3 percent pay cuts and asking citizen legislators to do the same, lawmakers should also be willing to put everything on the table for discussion as it relates to managing the state budget — including state lawsuit liability.

I maintain the state could save taxpayers millions of dollars by addressing its lawsuit liability issues. To that end, I have drafted legislation that will require the attorney general's office to review each lawsuit and put forward remedies to state agencies. State agencies would then be required to follow the directives in order to mitigate the state's financial liability and protect taxpayers.

The costliest agencies are the Department of Social and Health Services, the Washington State Patrol, the Department of Transportation and the Department of Corrections.

Liability costs related to the failures in state agencies are unacceptable. With a little bit of leadership from the governor and clear directives on how to lessen situations like those mentioned here, we could begin to reform the way state agencies do business. Forcing government to look at every function and ensure it is in the best interest of those it is serving, and those paying the bills, is good for everyone.

It's not too late to find ways to address the budget issues facing us, but it will take leadership and the willingness to fund priorities in the budget, enact reforms and retake the helm of our state to control costs at every level, including lawsuit liability.

Rep. Kirk Pearson, R-Monroe, is serving his 6th term representing the 39th Legislative District and is the lead Republican on public safety issues in the House.

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