Thursday, February 01, 2007

Government Blackmail

Once upon a time there was a government that was running out of all the money that it wanted to expand and maintain a cafeteria of services to the community.  Whether government should or should not be offering all the services that legislators and special interests want it to is another question, but here is the government we have.

Take education for instance.  Budget shortfalls are common, but the tough questions are not asked, like why is the budget so high, and at least reasonable by other state’s standards, but coming up short at the school level.  So the powers that be, education loving legislators, school pundits and supporters cry that our schools are withering away and don’t have enough money, but in order to convince us that we need to pony up more money, they do something deplorable.

They dangle very popular programs in front of us, saying that these age-old programs, like sports and music, will have to go if they don’t get more money.  Sometimes that works.  Other times it doesn’t.

      In November, both Jackson and Josephine Counties voted against the levies necessary to keep their libraries open.  Neither was close--59/41 there and 57/43 here in JoCo.  They were the only two library levies in the state that were voted down; twelve passed and two failed because not enough folks voted.  Note that in Jackson County's case, the levy was to be paid only if the safety net (county payments and O&C funding) went away.

      To many voters, library funding was simply the opening volley in a bigger battle over potential tax increases and cuts in services driven by the loss of the safety net.  In both cases, county leadership dangled the libraries before the voters as the first cut unless a new levy was approved.  Voters reacted badly to the blackmail.

I wish that lobbyists in Oregon would figure this out.  Oregonians are increasingly hostile toward tax increases to the point that soon only Multnomah county will be able to pass any.  A few years ago, in 2000, Multnomah passed one of the only local income taxes in the nation to support the local school systems during the recession.  When the tax expired, they tried to extend the income tax, although a lesser percentage than before.  An attempt was made to make it more palatable by asking the surrounding counties to join in on the fun.  The surrounding counties outright refused to be included, as it polled very badly in those regions.   So the income tax died a timely death.

But the situation remains.  Even though the economy has returned to some semblance of pre-recession levels, the schools are apparently still in financial trouble.  Why is that?  Could the districts perhaps be poorly run? 

I remember reading in an Oregonian article years ago that even though the Portland School District was losing students dramatically, the central offices were actually expanding, and bureaucracies have a tendency for resisting any reduction in size.  But dangling programs that are important to the public is blackmail, plain and simple, and eventually the voters aren’t going to play that game and everyone is going to lose, like poor Jackson County.

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