A Czarina in Olympia? Janus-faced Gregoire passes buck


Commentary by JOEL CONNELLY

Jan. 7, 2011

Whenever a president or governor proposes to name a "czar," or consolidate authority at the top, it rouses this pundit's small-"r" republicanism and anti-royal Irish blood.

Gov. Chris Gregoire has been playing power games this week, in Janus-like, two-faced fashion.

One one front -- proposing a new Department of Education -- her message is: The buck stops with me. With state ferries and college money, she's passing the buck. Money must come from sources different from the state budget, she says.

The Department of Education proposal follows a time-honored formula: Consolidate, create clear lines of authority, and put one person in charge directly responsible to the leader.

Just one problem: The governor, a former three-term Attorney General, should have scoped it out. Just turn to Article III of the Washington State Constitution:

"SECTION 22: SUPERINTENDENT OF PUBLIC INSTRUCTION, DUTIES AND SALARY: The superintendent of public instruction shall have supervision over all matters pertaining to public schools, and shall perform such specific duties as may be prescribed by law."

How do you parachute somebody into authority over an official whose authority is specifically set down in the Constitution?

A chart outlining Gregoire's proposal is topped by "GOVERNOR": Beneath it are a K-12 ombudsman, appointed by the governor; a Secretary of Education, named by the governor; and a state P-20 education council, which the governor appoints.

The Superintendent of Public Instruction is nowhere mentioned. The governor cannot simply say, "ZAP, you don't exist."

Supporters see centralization as a path to accountability, and a way of finally harnessing public support for public education. State Rep. Reuven Carlyle, D-Seattle, an education reformer, quickly gave Gregoire a "MAZEL Tov" for her proposal.

"We've created a systematic disconnect between a governor's authority and accountability for education: It's one reason we're at the bottom of funding in K-12 and higher education," Carlyle argued.

"Once again, the two leading (gubernatorial) contenders for '12 -- Rob (McKenna) and Jay (Inslee) -- have no meaningful education interest, experience or passion . . . We need parents to look a governor in the eye and hold him/her accountable for our state's education quality."

Sometimes, it does work that way. The mayors in New York and Chicago were given charge of schools and appointed iron chancellors, who began to shake up calcified bureaucracies.

Alas, centralized authority can work in reverse. A governor/mayor/president gets jealous of a subordinate, or fears political fallout. The designated "czar" can find his/her head on the line for being aggressive and independent.

Example: Doug MacDonald, who changed the culture of a powerful state department, was eased out soon after Gregoire gained authority to appoint the Department of Transportation director.

The czar's patron can also be deposed. In Washington, D.C., an innovative, shake-things-up school chief resigned days after her mayor-patron lost his bid for re-election.

Gregoire is dancing around a fundamental problem: The state lacks money. After November's election, she is unwilling to call for new revenue measures.

Of course, The Seattle Times can oppose new taxes, support initiatives that make loophole-closing impossible, and then turn around and call for more state support of higher education.

The governor can't do that. So, while consolidating power, Gregoire is trying to divest responsibility for supporting the state's vitals. She wants to give colleges, instead of legislators, power to set (i.e. raise) tuition.

On Thursday, she proposed to transfer responsibility for Washington State Ferries to a Puget Sound regional ferry district. It would have power to tax people in the nine Western Washington counties served by the waterborne transportation system.
Gregoire made her reputation for thinking through such issues as the Hanford nuclear waste cleanup and tobacco's health impact.

On the ferry front, however, she's come up with a half-baked proposal that fractures the state. It's reminiscent of a disastrous World War II strategy: When attacked, scatter the convoy and let every ship fend for itself.

Ferries are a component of Washington's transportation system, every bit as much as highways and public transit. We all share its costs, whether upgrading a dangerous U.S. 12 between Pasco and Walla Walla, or building new ferries for the Port Townsend-Coupeville run.

As Senate Democrats noted soon after Democrat Gregoire posted her plan, the state is not asking Spokane residents to pay special taxes for their North-South freeway, or telling Vancouver to pony up for a new bridge to Portland.
"Our ferries are no less a part of the state highway system than these projects," the Dems added.

Gregoire wants to play reformer, and not be seen as a lame duck even though not likely to run again.

Dead-duck proposals are no way to accomplish these goals.