Flynn's Harp: Rob McKenna on state's budget challenge (3-2-11)
Posted on 3/3/2011 by Mike Flynn
Atty. Gen. Rob McKenna warns that Washington’s next governor “will face decisions that will create a lot of unrest” in bringing state spending and the size of government to a sustainable level. But he’s convinced that shrinking the size of government will be more easily accomplished if state employees can be brought into that process, rather than being turned into the enemies.
The man who could be the Republicans’ standard bearer in the 2012 race for governor of Washington thinks one of the realities in reducing the size and cost of state government is to “empower state employees, not terrorize them.”
“Any governor who would try to rule through fear is going to be unsuccessful because everyone depends on state employees to do their jobs and do those jobs well,” McKenna said during a telephone interview.
His comments, however, made clear he’s talking about making state employees part of the solution while acknowledging that employees’ union leaders will “oppose any change that could bring meaningful results.”
That means, he says, that the legislature will need to take a larger role in the process of putting together new contracts for state employees.. The way it works now is that lawmakers’ only role is thumbs up or thumbs down to what the governor and the union leaders agree to.
But he turns aside any suggestion that he’s being Pollyannaish by pointing to the process he says he has put in place in the AG’s office after taking office.
“We decided to be the first agency in state government to institute performance management, and the insights of department employees were part of figuring out how to accomplish that,” McKenna said. “Today we have more than 100 fewer people working in the office than during the last biennium and we have more work to do then ever. Virtually all of that was done through attrition, a process state employees can get behind.”
If those thoughts on public employees seem to contrast starkly with the shouting stalemate at work in Wisconsin where new Republican Gov. Scott Walker seeks to break employee unions, McKenna makes it clear he could be expected to set a more moderate tone.
“Successful Republican candidates in Washington State have always been a little different,” he says. “You have to put yourself out there in a way that appeals to the majority. You can’t follow some national formula and be successful as a statewide Republican in Washington.”
McKenna turns aside the question of whether his GOP candidacy is certain by saying that he must first be convinced that if he runs, he can win, a process he’s going through with supporters, friends and family. He says that after the legislative session ends, he make a decision one way or the other.
McKenna, now 48, notes with a chuckle that the first time he was able to vote, he cast his ballot for the last Republican to be elected in this state. That was 1980 when John Spellman was elected to what turned out to be one term. No state has a longer period of Democratic governors than Washington.
When I asked McKenna about the challenge for a Republican in dealing with the overwhelmingly Democratic bent of the state’s largest city, he said “A Republican doesn’t have to win Seattle to win statewide, but you have to do well in Seattle.”
Noting that he was elected to the King County Council and to two terms as state attorney general with substantial support from Seattle voters, McKenna added: “I don’t intend to abdicate Seattle.”
Many of those Seattle liberals were among those around the state who were upset at McKenna’s decision to join two dozen other state attorneys general in challenging the constitutionality of the landmark healthcare law approved by Congress last year.
The critics, including an angry Gov. Christine Gregoire, accused McKenna of a lack of concern about the healthcare coverage of Washington residents. To which he replies, the lawsuit is first about the Constitution, because “if an Attorney General doesn’t stand up for the Constitution, even in the face of opposition, what elected official will?
I asked McKenna why anyone, in this environment of financial-crisis dilemma and fierce partisan battles, would want to be governor and he replied that it represented “the opportunity to make a difference. To be a public servant is to be in a position to improve the community and the state.”
To explain that sense of commitment, McKenna points to his upbringing by parents committed to service: a father who was a twice-decorated 34-year army officer and a mother who was first a school teacher then a volunteer in church groups, eventually all women’s church groups in Europe.
Returning to the funding crisis faced by the state, McKenna said he views it as “an opportunity to transform state government since all sides understand there will no longer be business as usual since the cost of state government is simply no longer sustainable.”
He said “greater use of the private sector is the key to bringing us out of this recession,” adding that the private sector “is not being used widely enough, not just in contracting out to the private sector, not just businesses but also nonprofit organizations.”
“Shrinking the size of government can mean we transition to a process where state employees manage tee systems rather than doing the work in those systems,” McKenna adds.