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April 08, 2011

As state lawmakers grapple with a very tough budget challenge, the Attorney General’s Office is doing its part by cutting spending, prioritizing our legal work for state agencies to save them millions of dollars, and increasing productivity via the largest and most effective performance management system in state government. 

Doing our part to address state budget woes
To date, we have already reduced our budget by more than 10 percent, or roughly $25 million.  There are fewer staff working in the AGO than when I took office in 2005, and we have eliminated 125 positions over the last biennium.  We will cut millions more and further reduce the number of positions in our budget for the next biennium.  Because we have aggressively managed vacancies created by retirements, voluntary separations and transfers, we will likely be able to cut positions without losing more of our talented and experienced legal professionals.

Our administration division has borne the largest percentage of the cuts over the last biennium, reducing spending by nearly 15 percent over the last two years. My core leadership team and I have led by example in making these cuts, and have focused on preserving direct legal services to the maximum extent possible.

Despite these large reductions, I’m very proud that our office continues to do outstanding work for our clients and Washington’s people.  We see steadily rising satisfaction levels in our regular client surveys, and higher-than-average employee satisfaction scores in the state Department of Personnel survey.

Maintaining such a remarkable level of service under difficult circumstances has not been easy, but thanks to the dedication and commitment of all AGO staff to working harder and better than ever before, we’re managing to set the bar high for ourselves and all of state government.  We continue to be nationally recognized as one of the finest Attorney General offices in the country, and we constantly strive to fulfill our vision of being the best public law office in America.

The real problem with the state budget
In March, the state’s chief economist announced that our economic forecast “remains clouded with a great deal of uncertainty” due to “recent geopolitical developments, “including the tragedy in Japan and political unrest in the Middle East.”  The most recent revenue forecast predicted tax revenues over the next two years will be roughly $700 million lower than previously expected.  As a result, the budget gap is now closer to $5.1 billion for the 2011-2013 biennium.

The real problem I see with this forecast is that it projects a $5.1 billion gap after assuming 13.8 percent tax revenue growth in the next biennium!  It is hard to fathom how tax revenues will grow that much in two years when the economy is likely to grow just three to four percent a year.  Most Washington taxpayers certainly will not see their incomes grow 13.8 percent, nor will most employers enjoy sales growth of that magnitude.  If we still have a $5 billion gap after assuming double-digit tax revenue growth, it’s obvious we have a major spending problem—a large “structural deficit” in the state budget in which spending commitments rapidly outstrip any reasonable expectation of how we’ll pay for them.

It is also important to note that the forecasted $5.1 billion gap assumes $2 billion in new initiatives that do not have to be funded by the Legislature.  In other words, the total amount includes $2 billion that is not currently being spent, so the Legislature could “opt out” of spending it now, which would leave the state with a $3 billion gap rather than $5.1 billion.

As the Governor has been explaining to the Legislature, there is now no escaping the fact that we must address the state budget’s major cost drivers, such as skyrocketing health care costs.  State spending on health care has doubled in the last ten years, growing from 15 percent of the state budget to 30 percent.  To feed this dramatic increase, other programs that have not been major cost drivers are being sacrificed.  For example, higher education accounted for over 16 percent of the state budget in 1992 and will drop to about 8 percent under the Governor’s proposed budget.  Decimating programs that are not the real cost drivers, such as higher education, will never solve the underlying problem.

Prosecution victory in Trooper Johnson case
Our entire office is very proud of Assistant Attorneys General John Hillman and Melanie Tratnik for their successful prosecution of a Pacific County man charged with shooting a Washington State Patrol trooper in the back of the head in February 2010.  Following closely in time the assassinations of a Seattle police officer, four Lakewood officers and a Pierce County Deputy Sheriff, this close call for Trooper Johnson shook us all.  Our Chief Deputy Brian Moran was on hand to assist during the weekend of this shooting and I made it clear to the Pacific County prosecuting attorney that, if asked, my office would jump at the opportunity to prosecute the case.

A Pierce County jury unanimously found 46-year-old Martin Jones guilty of attempted murder.  The shooting occurred as Trooper Johnson was impounding a van belonging to Jones’ wife, who had earlier been arrested and was under investigation for drunken driving.

At the Attorney General’s Office, we deeply appreciate the risks our State Patrol troopers take and the sacrifices that they, and all our state’s law enforcement officers, make on behalf of Washington’s people.  This case meant a great deal to us, and we all are very grateful for the skill and expertise our assistant attorneys general applied in prosecuting this case.

Partnering to raise awareness of vulnerable adult abuse in Washington
The abuse of vulnerable adults continues to be a serious and growing problem in our state.  Last year alone, our state’s Adult Protective Services received nearly 15,000 reports of suspected abuse, neglect, self-neglect, financial exploitation and abandonment of vulnerable adults.  It is a problem that affects seniors across all socio-economic groups, cultures and races, and can occur anywhere – in or outside the home, in nursing homes and other institutions.

I’ve been working on this issue for several years since launching the Attorney General’s Office Vulnerable Adults Initiative in 2007, so I was very pleased to have the great opportunity recently to join Pierce County Crime Stoppers, law enforcement, prosecutors and others to launch an exciting new statewide education campaign to raise awareness of vulnerable adult abuse.

New Crime Stoppers billboards are being unveiled across Washington urging citizens to report crimes against seniors and soliciting anonymous tips and information about the possible abuse/theft/neglect against the elderly.  If the tip is criminal in nature, it will be forwarded to law enforcement. Tips that are not criminal will be sent to the appropriate social/advocacy agency for assistance.

Looking ahead
We’re continuing work on our 2011 Legislative Agenda which includes proposals to improve consumer protection, community safety and government accountability.  Progress on our requests, along with all the latest news from the AGO, can be found on our website.

Meanwhile, I hope you and yours are enjoying the early days of spring.

Rob McKenna
Attorney General

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