State Agencies Pour Anti-Freeze Into Tight Budget Loophole

As Gov. Gregoire prepared to unveil her latest round of painful budget cutbacks last week, the state Superintendent of Public Instruction’s Teaching and Learning Division wound up a two-day meeting in Renton at a cost of $20,000 for food, lodging, airplane, and auto expenses. Though little known, the governor’s much-publicized spending hold has a loophole: Agencies can apply for and receive exemptions for purchases, job hiring, and travel, among other costs. And there are a lot of exemptions—millions of dollars worth.

Jason Mercier of the watchdog Washington Policy Center waded through the latest 84-page exemptions list and highlighted a few that caught his eye. There’s the computer upgrade by the Department of Labor & Industries, for example. L&I’s policy is to regularly “refresh” its computer software—in this case, 733 staff notebook computers. The agency wants to update to Windows 7 and other newer programs at a cost of $680,000. If it does not follow its upgrading “model,” says L&I, the “downtime and impact on productivity,” as well as security, will be costly, and—since some computers have already been refreshed—leave the agency with a “mixed support environment” of different operating systems.

L&I figured it would cost $587,000 to defer the upgrade, based on the projected costs of doing the work later rather than now. Thus the difference between waiting and going ahead was only $93,000, and those were the only two options, L&I said. Ultimately, the agency got the exemption—part of a three-year leasing program costing $1.8 million. Where but in government does it cost almost as much to do nothing as something?

Other exempted purchases include five new trucks at $30,000 each for the Fish & Wildlife Department. They’re needed because an older vehicle “creates unsafe working conditions” for officers, says F&W. It didn’t say how old the “several” vehicles to be replaced are.

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