Idahoans See Alternatives to Deep School Cuts

I thought I would share this set of results to a survey I have conducted over the past month to see how people feel about deep cuts to funding for state services, especially public schools. 

As you will see below, people from all over the state, a majority from outside Boise, answered the survey. The survey was sent to a list containing more democrats than republicans and was available for all to forward to friends. It was also posted on my web site as well as on facebook and twitter where I have quite a large number of friends and followers from all over the political spectrum.

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In the week ahead the Budget Committee will vote on school budgets. Currently Republicans have refused to discuss tax increases or changes in Idaho tax exemptions to protect education, but instead propose cutting public school funding for next school year by 7.5% or $128 million. Some extreme factions propose even deeper cuts. Either way schools now face policies that will eliminate more tutoring for struggling students, increase class sizes, eliminate teacher training, further reduce access to textbooks, decimate funding for science and other academic materials, all while making many academic and after school programs more expensive for Idaho families and their kids.


Below, for your information, is a rough breakdown on where survey respondents came from.

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The survey is still available if you'd like to take it. In the coming week I will share results with my legislative colleagues.

Gravity

The state Capitol is set up to contain two very separate universes which revolve next to each other, passing material back and forth, the force of each tugging and pulling but both locked here together in the other's gravity.

Each day one committee breaks the division of the two universe model. The 20 of us meet in our early morning conference meeting and we laugh and tease and the great house-senate divide fades a bit to make us all just members of the Joint Committee.

Just yesterday, in spite of arm twisting, the Senate killed the House's hopes of denying state retirees a tiny raise this year from the state PERSI pension fund which has the ability to ensure seniors have enough income to participate in the economy and can afford the cost increases they face over time. We, the Senate, felt we did what was best for Seniors and the State's economy allowing the tiny raise. House members did not but still upstairs this morning the jibes were more humor than ire.

One floor down in the committee room, numbers become motions now. We are turning ideas for how to spend money into law. Each budget carries a number in parentheses. Those are the jobs we are removing from the budget. In a few cases they were already vacant positions, placeholders for a person already laid off or a position never re-filled, but the vast majority are real people's jobs, jobs which, as of July, will no longer exist. This is emotional for me, as is learning that we may have already priced people out of hundreds of thousands of dollars in medications and that we could vote to do that on a far more grand scale next week, that we may well eliminate mental health treatment or substance abuse programs. I can't make these figures on the pretty colored pages stay as numbers only. It doesn't work for me.

So when our universes collide each morning, it is to me like watching the world of math meet the world of human faces. I see families in crisis facing longer lines and more uncaring government. It is not ok to me. It should not be ok to any of us.

Good Bye

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The whole pace of the session just accelerated tenfold.

The divisive and highly political anti-choice, anti-senior and anti-health care bills sailed through hearings this morning and so the legislature is well on its way to inviting constitutional challenges and keeping attorneys busy and well funded once again. We even take up hearings on politicizing state retiree benefits in Commerce Committee tomorrow. Do we help the economy and seniors or do we do what the Idaho Freedom Foundation wants?

We started setting budgets this morning too and in this, the very first day, there was a budget many felt would be harmful to the state, the economy and the people of Idaho if not given more money. While my personal first priority is not to hire bank regulators, I know they are necessary, but compared to a teacher I think I'll fund teachers… I even debated against the motion until Rep. Fred Wood said that not going with the same identical bare bones budgets and the same deep cuts for every agency will unravel the process.

I thought to myself, with the mess we are about to make of the economy what are we trying to defend here? What is there here in these cruel 2011 budgets so beloved that we would not want to unravel it?

All our reserves are gone and we have no stimulus with which to once more protect the state from letting prisoners lose or firing thousands and thousands of teachers and state employees. Who has asked the people of Idaho if they want to have their schools cut this deep? Can we even write budgets that work and balance given that the fist day we already fell off the wagon of austerity worrying about bank regulators. What happens when we get to children or people's lives and health?

I feel this pace accelerating and I long for the playful days of last week when we were wishing our first set of pages good bye, when Bart Davis, Kate Kelly and all of Democratic and Republican leadership stood in a big receiving line to shake hands and wish them all well. 

Everyone laughed each time one of the girls reached up and hugged Bart Davis because he doesn't like to be known as kind or as a softy. They all got hugs out him and a few even got one out of Kate who is no fan of the "touchy feely" either. It was charming and a bit sad since they were a particularly good group. But our new pages are here in their red sweater vests, wandering this giant gleaming place which is so very different from the place it was just a few days ago.

Hidden Agendas

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Sometimes our co-chairs Dean & Maxine have to balance and mediate very different agendas. Not an easy task.

Friday, twenty of us from the House and Senate met at 7 am on the 4th floor in a brand new conference room made for 20. This was the second of our early morning pre-meetings for the budget committee. We will have many more in the weeks ahead. We do not vote here since we are supposed to make public policy in the open, but we do ask questions and discuss consequences. Reporters come but the TV cameras are not there to watch us as we struggle to ask questions and come to grips with the language and process that often hides underlying agendas and grim hidden consequences.

Friday on a 4 to 16 vote those state agencies that the Governor had not already cut by at least 7% were put on the chopping block to be sure their total cut equaled at least 7%. A few like Public Education were, in a sort of slight of hand, given our last special chunks of reserves or stimulus money to make up for the cuts and to leave them "whole" or, for now, unharmed.

If you were a fly on a wall in that room or if you were listening on the internet as we went downstairs and voted on the cuts or holdbacks Friday you needed to listen for the word "permanent" or the word "ongoing" since this means something very different from a cut that is "one time." You can imagine the difference. What we did Friday the motion makers called "permanent" meaning that soon, when we start working on the 2011 budgets, the starting numbers or "base" will be a dire one. The 2011 budget will begin at the eviscerated level of funding already at least 7% below where it was in 2009.

So, so soon when we start voting to set the coming year's budgets, we will have no stimulus money and next to no reserves and, because what we will call the "base" already hides a huge cut, we will be making cuts on top of cuts. And worse, should we vote to eliminate a tax exemption, delay the grocery credit, raise beer or wine taxes or put in place a one time income tax surcharge enabling us to restore money to a budget, there is a conservative anti-government faction that can rejoice at the idea that we will have to ask for what looks like a budget "increase" just to bring an agency back up to the funding level it was at before the economic crisis.

This legislature does not increase budgets or staff positions lightly. It will be a struggle now just to put all this back together now that we have torn it apart.

You might say that for some law makers this recent vote is a dream come true. They have, in one year, undone decades or even a century of progress creating mental health and substance abuse programs, agencies to remove barriers in the lives of people with disabilities, entities that ensure that our drinking water is clean and our air is not toxic. How we put it all back together for the people of Idaho is anyone's guess.

Taxing Risch

Senator Jim Risch spoke before the Idaho Senate this week, telling the same jokes and using the same props he used a year ago. Democrats and Republicans noticed this. His address ended up sounding like little more than a tired partisan stump speech, void of substantive policy or real thought. The senator has been in office for a year and has little to say but how awful a place it is. Senator Crapo could have said the same but did not and chose to focus more on issues and on Idaho.

One has to wonder how completely U.S. Senate was Risch's fall back since Otter was then the one in line for governor. Risch shows little or no passion for issues of any kind. He is not a policy maker. A year later no solutions for how to better regulate insurance companies, how to save struggling small businesses or make it so that Idaho families are no longer going bankrupt over medical bills or the down economy. 

And worse the Senator spoke to us in a context where he addressed a state and legislative body facing the grim error of having bowed to then Governor Risch's very forceful persuasion to pass a huge tax shift that now clearly has put Idaho public schools in a dire position. Millions of dollars in property tax cuts went to out of state entities, huge corporations and speculators while schools lost over $100 million net and the security of more stable property tax funding evaporated. Yet worse families picked up the tab for millions in business tax reductions.

You can hear the buyer's remorse in the voices of those legislators who resisted the shift, voted no to stop what they knew was poor policy until given no choice in that one summer special session of 2006.

It was a less than sweet homecoming for the man who did not acknowledge the part he played in the budget mess our schools now face… the man who seems even to have forgotten or chosen not to care which speech he gave us just last year.

The Wolf Was Framed

Rather than a policy discussion, Senator Lodge has shared a story in presenting before the Budget committee this morning. She sees the legislature as a wolf that accidentally knocked down a straw house and a stick house, killed some pigs and ate them — not to waste them of course. In her mind and in her analogy Idahoans should have sympathy for us, the wolf (and isn't THAT ironic) because we are just trying to do our best and make a cake for our granny and get through this economic time, and if a few pigs die we are sorry. Really.

Nearsighted Conservation

Senator Siddoway has asked a series of questions about land conservation easements this morning. He said he opposes them because they are near sighted. The idea of preserving agricultural land as a farm or as wildlife habitat into perpetuity is near sighted. From the questions the good Senator asked, he had a ways to go to understand how easements work.

Can the land change hands? Yes.

Who makes sure it is preserved as the easement promises? A land trust.

Does that hurt the tax base of the county and local area? No since the land remains agricultural and may allow some forms of development on some small parts of the land, it may increase the taxable value. Even more important, the preservation of the land may increase the value of neighboring land which enjoys the wildlife, scenery and benefit of not being next to yet another house, road or subdivision.

We had before us a Supplemental Appropriations bill for an easement to preserve in perpetuity the Breckenridge Ranch along the Teton river. Supplementals are bills that allow for spending for a previous fiscal year. They allow new money to be spent and unexpected costs to be covered.

Senator Siddoway voted no, even Senator Mortimer who is a developer made the motion and voted yes. I think the fear of conservation is fading in the face of endless darkened subdivisions. Democrat and Republican can feel love for an open field, the sight of elk grazing, eagles in the tress, the sound of cranes calling. As Idahoans we have a sense of the future, what we do and don't want it to be. It is not near sighted, it is wise. I like seeing this in my colleagues. It gives me hope.

Schools on the Line

Looking at the legislative budget book I realize that the public schools and other budgets now are more or less fiction. You can go on line and look at the whole state budget. It is pages and pages and pages of numbers with some good narratives a little bit of year to year comparison and a few graphs. But when you look, you need to know a few things.

1) As of Friday we have voted not to spend as much money as even these bare bones budgets propose.

2) While the cuts don't say 14% or 10% these are cuts on top of cuts. Many cuts from last year were "made permanent" or now are the "base" from which we will set future budgets. We are digging downward. In mental health and substance abuse, in schools, when we look at the already bare bones health care we provide for people whose wages are too low to afford insurance we are undoing decades and years of progress in two short years.

3) We had stimulus money for schools last year when we set budgets. We don't have it this year.

4) To balance the budget now, after Friday's vote, we would have to cut school budgets, teachers, heat, lights, buses, counselors, everything by something like 15%. That is what will begin to happen next week unless my colleagues fear going home to constituents and admitting, yes we increased class sizes, laid off teachers and did nothing but cut deep deep into our public schools. It is up to the people of the state to render the fear of hurting schools perhaps more loathsome than the fear of not singing to the tea party tune of lowering taxes until there is little, less or no government left at all.

5) Over the course of history, budget bills have been killed by those unwilling to carry home the weight or harm of the budget to their districts. This sort of thing requires us to start over, to reassess what we had considered doing.

The Glass

This morning we set the state's fate in motion.  

The debate was about optimism and pessimism. It was about whether we want to cut thousands of jobs now as a preemptive measure or wait, and, only if things are worse then we expect, cut as many as we must later. The debate was about the economy and whether we could impact it with the vote we were about to make. We debated eliminating millions or even hundreds of millions of dollars in jobs and contracts to private business and whether that would affect Idahoans whose shops, restaurants, markets, farms and production facilities depend on the wages of people in their communities.

We debated the appropriate size of government and whether government schools, government health services, government prisons and government consumer protections would be improved or rendered less effective with more cuts.

The debate soon became about the glass being half full or being half empty and whether we might do something so dire as to knock the bottom out of the glass itself with our vote.

We voted and from here the glass is officially only half full. We could choose to fill it to save jobs or schools or the Republican majority here could choose to go home with 33% cuts in many budgets. Schools at levels unimaginably low, teachers gone, classrooms crowded and Idaho kids missing something they will never get back.

Our confidence that we can pull together and correct this course has officially taken an ill turn. Some legislative leaders have resigned themselves to the least of aspirations and a willingness not to sustain state jobs but to eliminate thousands of them in the weeks ahead.

Bureaucracy

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The Department of Administration is here today and they seem nervous. Mr. Gwartney started by talking about consolidating phone services. I
have to question my ears but I'm pretty sure he said: "The
Governor has to dial 12 digits to get my office –and that's OK as long as he doesn't forget them." Not a helpful comment from the Governor's best friend given the difficult political environment the Governor faces. One has to wonder if there isn't a bit of friction there.

Gwartney's staff described to us the huge lovely technology bureaucracy they hope to create where state agencies lose their IT staff and those staff positions go to build Mike Gwartney's empire. Even our good co-chairman of JFAC expressed less than enthusiasm. "Candidly," he said, "I have a lack of confidence in the ability to deliver services –based on past experience." It seems that the Department of Finance and the Department of Insurance have not gotten what they were promised in retaining the specialized technology they need to do their work.

In case anyone has forgotten, Governor Otter & Mike Gwartney initially proposed eliminating the Department of Administration to improve the efficiency of Idaho Government. That plan was revised. The Governor and Gwartney decided instead it would be more efficient for the state not to eliminate it but to make it really huge and all powerful.

The discussion turned to creating "IEN" or the Idaho Education Network, an empire in school broad band connectivity run by, as the Governor has introduced them, his good friends at Qwest. All the little providers whose infrastructure could be improved with state funds will instead be replaced by Qwest. A few medium providers I think stay in place. So far no mention of the law suit that challenges the Department of Admin's rejecting a lower bid proposal to go with Qwest. We are told the ongoing costs of the project — the millions in state and federal dollars to Qwest — is sustainable because the state can apply for grants to cover its part. I recall the Governor telling state entities not to rely on or even apply for grants because grants often vanish, leaving programs unfunded.

But we are supposed to be excited that we can fire math teachers and not worry about the field trips kids don't get anymore because there are virtual field trips and people and programs far off on computer screens who will teach math.

Call me odd but I know I've always had students who needed to learn something in a different way, where I as a teacher had to be creative and ask questions to figure out how they think and how they might best understand something. How will a computer program know when that needs to happen? How will the screen know when a kid's eyes are filling with tears because she is confused or overwhelmed or scared because she knows she doesn't understand and someone needs to stop, take her by the hand and pick up an arm full of blocks, draw circles or draw pictures on paper to help her through it — to make sure kids don't fall behind or give up or melt down. Not all children think or learn the same and we will always need multiple ways to teach and a real person there to look the kids in the eye.

I think of our experience here with the keys to our office doors. The statehouse was opening and we were moving in but there were no keys for our office doors. We were putting files and photos and things on and in our desks and people were filing through the building day and night. Some creative high school kids even had a party somewhere in a senate room. We couldn't get Admin to send us keys. Secretaries for the ProTem and Majority leader couldn't lock their offices and files. It took forever. The Department of Admin was far away and didn't see that it mattered. Time passed and passed.

How about the part time employees, who, with a Mike Gwartney pen stroke, were required to pay hundreds of dollars more in health insurance premiums? Who was there looking in the eyes of those Idaho employees? Who was thinking about the consequences of this to those families and to the economy and state? The state is not a business with no other interest than advancing its own personal fiscal well being. We are also charged with advancing the Idaho economy, bettering the lives of Idaho families, making sure we retain and respect skilled and valued state workers.

But no, here we are today contemplating allowing Governor Otter to create this huge, impersonal and uncaring all pervasive entity, an empire of administration. Is this the future of our state? Is that Butch Otter's vision of government?

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