Wash. governor seeks reforms, budget overhauls
Ready for the Microsoft Highway? How about the Boeing Bridge?
With a slow economic recovery hammering state revenues, Gov. Chris Gregoire on Thursday suggested selling naming rights to state properties, privatizing state ferries and taking other bold steps as possible solutions to Washington's long-term budget problems.
It's not the first time that Gregoire, a second-term Democrat, has called for major government reforms. But Thursday's ideas, paired with an overhauled accountability system for state programs, represent her biggest push yet for shedding the status quo.
"There are no sacred cows. We're going to ask new and challenging questions about every single program in state government," Gregoire said.
She offered few specifics about some of the more eye-opening proposals, including auctioning naming rights for state assets such as bridges, ferries, rest areas and public buildings. But Gregoire indicated she was committed to investigating those ideas and others, including broader private control of state services.
For example, Gregoire said the state is examining whether a private vendor could take over information technology services, and outside experts are looking into privatizing Washington's ferry system, the nation's largest.
Other cash-strapped states also have tried unusual ways to raise money.
A Florida plan to sell advertising space on state license plates flopped earlier this year. In New Hampshire, a new state commission will inventory properties for possible sale or lease and explore privatization of some programs.
Washington already has been through a major round of budget-cutting and faces another difficult two-year budget cycle. Gregoire and the Democrat-controlled Legislature balanced a shortfall of about $12 billion over the past two years, with spending cuts accounting for about 40 percent.
The economy has not yet recovered, and the next budget is expected to be short by at least $3 billion. Add in the political difficulty of raising new taxes, and the state must look at a major downsizing, Gregoire said.
"We can't turn to state government and expect it to do it all," Gregoire said. "We're going to have to say that some of the things that people have relied on — some of the things that I would say to you are good — can no longer be performed by state government."
Asked why her plans didn't include ways of generating more tax revenue, Gregoire cited the headache of cobbling together an $800 million tax package earlier this year only to see most of the taxes challenged by a ballot measure campaign.
Gregoire's pronouncements were sure to draw criticism from social service advocates, public-sector labor unions and other influential parts of the Democratic Party's base who worked to pass the tax package and preserve state programs.
Tim Welch, spokesman for the Washington Federation of State Employees, said the union was troubled by suggestions that the state might wring more savings from employee benefits or downsize facilities for the developmentally disabled and juvenile criminals.
"It is a sad day when an effort to 'transform' the budget appears to be nothing more than cover for cuts that make no fiscal or common sense," Welch said.
A pool of nearly three dozen outside experts will help guide the governor's new budget planning, including representatives from government, business, labor and nonprofits. The state also plans a series of field hearings later this year.
As for naming rights, it doesn't appear the state has been actively shopping for sponsors yet. Microsoft Corp. spokesman Lou Gellos cited Xbox and Bing partnerships with local sports teams as the extent of the Redmond-based company's sponsorships. A Boeing Co. spokesman didn't immediately return a message seeking comment on the idea.
Associated Press writers Bill Kaczor in Tallahassee, Fla., and Norma Love in Concord, N.H. contributed to this report.