In Our View: Mergers in Olympia

Crossover Democrats helped Republicans consolidate state departments



Given the choice between saving $18 million in tax dollars and saving about 100 jobs in state government, we suspect most folks would choose the former. That’s why the Legislature’s decision last week to consolidate five major agencies into two new agencies, with new duties for an old one, was correct.

Those numbers are estimates. Officials in Gov. Chris Gregoire’s office believe about $18 million could be saved with the mergers. It’s also expected to result in the loss of 95 jobs. Another number — 115 — is how many workers the Washington Federation of State Employees says could lose union membership and protections in the Department of Information Services.

Despite the fuzziness of the projections, the changes brought by Senate Bill 5931 are worth trying. Much of the work of these agencies is administrative rather than direct delivery of programs. Departments that will be most affected are General Administration, Information Services, Personnel and State Printer; the Official of Financial Management will gain oversight of information technology purchases in all agencies.

A new department of Enterprise Services will include all roles of the General Administration and Printer departments. A new Consolidated Technology Services department will take over most duties of information technology and information services, with the latter office expected to lose about 61 jobs. “This is about delivering the services of state government as effectively as possible,” said Stan Marshburn, deputy director of the OFM.

But to a lesser degree than efficiency, timing also is a factor in this transition. In October, the state will open its $255 million Enterprise Services building and Data Center east of the Capitol. The merging agencies will move into that new building.

The state workers union is complaining not only about the loss of jobs but about new civil service rules that will allow managers more flexibility in hiring and contracting out services. And some Democrat lawmakers describe Senate Bill 5931 as an attack on state employees. In an Associated Press story, state Rep. Sam Hunt, D-Olympia, pointed out that the state already contracts out “$800 million a biennium for goods and services that private vendors provide to state agencies, school districts, and higher education.” Does he think that’s a bad thing? We don’t. Does he think the amount too much, or enough? Again, we don’t.

This merger proves how Republican-led solutions can find their way into a Democrat-led Legislature that is bipartisan in spirit. With support from several crossover Democrats, SB 5931 became law by votes of 31-13 in the Senate and 54-42 in the House. In the Senate, Joe Zarelli, R-Ridgefield (and one of the bill’s original co-sponsors), and Craig Pridemore, D-Vancouver, voted for the measure while Don Benton, R-Vancouver, was listed among three who were excused. In the House, Clark County legislators voted along party lines, Democrats against the bill, Republicans for it.

Consolidation of government operations is not always a good idea, but it’s often a strategy worth considering. In many cases, fewer silos means more-efficient work. That’s one of the silver linings in this cloud that’s called the Great Recession and the painfully slow recovery. Cash-strapped budget writers — in our state deprived by voters of opportunities to increase revenue — are forced to turn over every figurative stone searching for ways to save public money.