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Friday, February 20, 2009

Today we continue our four-part series on the important role of public investments in our state. The series is based on the Progress Index, a framework for analyzing the state budget that was developed by the Budget & Policy Center. The Progress Index utilizes four commonly-held values: education and opportunity, thriving communities, healthy people and environment, and economic security. Last week, I wrote about education and opportunity.

Thriving communities rely on public investments that maintain our state infrastructure and protect our natural resources. Public structures such as transportation, communications, justice, and the arts keep our state economy in motion, our neighborhoods safe, and our cultural life vibrant. To create thriving communities, we need to do more than address short-term needs. We need thoughtful, long-term planning and the sustainable use of resources.

The state can promote economic growth and the wise use of resources while also ensuring that business, education, and the arts serve the interests of all Washingtonians. The Budget & Policy Center has identified four research-based goals that will help us make progress towards creating a state we all want to live in.

- Promote Economic Growth and Sustainable Development
- Strengthen Public Transportation and Infrastructure
- Protect Public Safety and Implement an Equal Justice System
- Ensure Efficiency and Transparency in State Government

Close to half of the state's investments in thriving communities go towards public safety and the justice system. Another sizable chunk is dedicated to efficiency and transparency in state government. (See graph) Much of the state's transportation investments are made through the capital budget, which is not considered in the Progress Index.

As the population grows in Washington State, our forests, farms, and recreation areas are at risk of development. One important state investment, the Washington Wildlife and Recreation Program, works to preserve and protect these areas through grants to local governments. Since 1992, the program has funded over 920 projects across the state to create parks, protect wildlife habitat, and preserve working farms.

At the same time, innovative economic development programs create jobs that pay livable wages for workers throughout the state. Investments in education and worker training programs, the renewable energy economy, and research and development all contribute to broad economic development. For example, Washington Manufacturing Services is a state supported nonprofit that provides small manufacturers with low-cost consulting services to help them increase productivity and improve competitiveness.In addition, state contributions to renovations of local landmarks are important for creating communities in which businesses can thrive.

Making smart investments in public safety means more than building new prisons. It requires research-based approaches to improving outcomes for offenders. Washington has made efforts to reduce recidivism among youth offenders by investing in the Family Integrated Transitions (FIT) program, which includes mental health and substance abuse treatment that begins while youth are still incarcerated and continues during the transition period back to their community. FIT is currently available in nine counties. A Washington State Institute of Public Policy study found that while expensive, the costs of the program were easily outweighed by the savings to taxpayers by avoiding future incarcerations.

Finally, meaningful participation by citizens in the decisions of government requires publicly accessible information on government policies and programs. Washington State's budget process has consistently earned high marks in national studies of transparency in government. However, the state's system for reviewing tax exemptions, which amount to $13 billion of lost tax revenue for the state, could be more transparent by including the exemptions in the state's annual budget process.

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