Friday, June 17, 2011

It's Been a Month and I'm Feeling Guilty. I looked at this blog just the other day and saw that I hadn't posted in a month. My first thought was "I should post something!" My second thought was, "What would I post?"

The near-total breakdown at the end of the legislative session has been hashed and re-hashed to death and as I write, negotiations continue and legal arguments are being honed for the upcoming date with the court system to determine how much of Minnesota government can be shut down if a budget agreement is not reached by June 30.

At this point, it's my guess that there will be a shutdown. Both sides contend that they have come forward with their best (and final) offer and unless one side blinks and makes a major move toward a settlement, there doesn't appear to be any recourse but a shutdown. Perhaps I've been in this business too long, but the stakes seem to be so much more elevated in the past decade than in previous decades. For whatever reason, political combatants now cling to the poles of the debate rather than searching for the middle ground. Both sides believe they can get 100% of what they want, so why negotiate. As a result, there is this lurching along of the system, as the focus of the debate changes dramatically with the change in legislators. Given the change in legislative control coming into the 2011 session, I fully anticipated that the content of the debate would be much different than in the past few years. What I didn't anticipate--although I predicted a special session from the get-go--was the problem with budget negotiations being as pronounced as they are.

As for the shutdown itself, I don't think anyone is wishing for it, but I do sense that both sides have a perverse curiosity about what will happen if there is a shutdown. DFLers seem to think there will be a major upheaval in people's lives and the blame will all fall on the Republicans for not raising taxes to cover a portion of the budget problem. Republicans seem to believe that there will be less disruption to people's lives and that they can paint the Governor as being so intent on raising taxes that he'll take the whole state hostage if he has to in order to accomplish his goal.

I'm tempted to tell a somewhat off-color story about one of my cousins who came out from town to visit the farm and his curiosity with the electric fence and what would happen if he . . . uh . . .did a certain something in the proximity of said fence (I think you get the picture). Let's just say his curiosity was satisfied (although it was hard to tell through all the painful wailing). Needless to say, he stayed away from the fence for the rest of the day.

It will probably be the same thing here. Everyone is curious about what's going to happen. In this instance, the decision makers know there is going to be pain in the form of 20,000 or 30,000 state employees being out of work and a raft of state services being unavailable to Minnesotans, but it's hard to gauge what that pain actually means and maybe curiosity has gotten the better of the system. At any rate, my guess is once it's done, no one is going to want to do it again. . .at least for awhile.

MDE Shutdown Plans. The Minnesota Department of Education (MDE) has put together an FAQ page to deal with questions you might have regarding how things will proceed if and when there is a shutdown. MDE convened a group of education lobbyists yesterday to outline their plans and to answer questions from us and to ask us questions regarding our memberships' concerns. I want to applaud MDE for bringing us together and giving us the opportunity to share our concerns. Another meeting is planned for when the shutdown looms ever larger.

MDE's webpage dedicated to shutdown-related questions can be found here:

I urge you all to take advantage of the opportunity to have your questions answered through this medium.

Governor Vetoes Everything. It's old news now, but the Governor vetoed both HF 934, the omnibus education funding bill, and HF 1381, the omnibus education policy bill. Below are the veto messages for each bill.

I don't want to come across as picayune in pointing out one problem I have with the Governor's veto message as it pertains to the omnibus education funding bill, but the phrase "I will not sign an education funding bill that pits student-against-student or district-against-district" raises my hackles a bit (not all of my hackles and only a little bit).

When I worked for then-Senator Randy Peterson in the late 1980s when he was chair of the Education Funding Division (or whatever we called it back then), one of the sayings he repeated often was "we can only spend a dollar once." In other words, if it was spent on a single purpose or for a categorical formula that benefited one set of districts more than another, the dollar was gone. It couldn't be spent again on something else. If a dollar goes to a relatively small set of districts, other districts are going to be at a funding disadvantage. Whether or not the difference in distribution can be justified is another matter entirely, but what I guess I'm trying to say is that students and districts have been pitted against each other since the state became involved in the funding of education. It's only the competition for dollars that has become more keen.

I write this not to chide the Governor or to disagree with his veto of the omnibus education funding bill. Like almost all omnibus bills, HF 934 is a collection of items, some of which merited support and some of which yodeled "veto me" at the top of their imaginary lungs. Where I take minor issue is that over the past decade, we have seen more and more attention given to the qualities--demographic and otherwise--where school districts differ as opposed to where they are the same. As a result, we see more revenue distributed through various categorical programs at the expense of the general education formula. A vast majority of SEE districts are what I call "basic formula districts;" districts in which the basic formula assumes a much greater percentage of the total general revenue available to the district than in other districts with either high levels of categorical funding or a big referendum. This concentration on categorical funding has pitted districts-against-districts and the result has not been to SEE members' advantage. I agree with the Governor that districts should not be pitted against districts and the task force he appointed to update state education funding formulas that recently finished its work has some very good suggestions. Whether or not these suggestions take root at the Legislature remains to be seen (and the report is not perfect), but it is my hope that a system in which the basic formula plays a much larger role than it plays now will be the result of the discussion surrounding this effort.

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