Saturday, March 14, 2009

The Scylla and Charybdis of HB 331 and HB 346

Don't underestimate the ability of legislators to cause mischief. The diabolical connection between HB 331 and HB 346 is a perfect example.

HB 331 changes the school funding formula to favor school districts with a disproportionate number of poor children, non-English speaking children, and children with learning difficulties. In other words, school districts like Gadsden. Standing alone, the bill would have virtually no chance of passing. Wealthy districts would resent losing funds to help poor districts. Anglo districts would resent losing money to help the non-English speaking. The bill would stand up as a poster child for "unfunded mandates," and it would never see the light of day, regardless of its merits. Likewise, had HB 331 come with money attached to it, say a per capita fee of, say $300 per student found to be eligible in each school district, it would have failed not only for the reasons given above, but because, in this economic climate, of course, we couldn't possibly afford it. Double failure.

However, it does not stand alone. It is accompanied by HB 346, which funds HB 331, but in a special way. Instead of earmarking funds for each qualifying student and distributing funds to districts accordingly, it takes the budget for public education and adds 15% to the total. And then it raises gross receipts taxes .75% to pay for it. Grand total? $389 million the first year, over $400 million the second year. Now that we have raised the public school budget by 15% we go back to HB 331 and allocate the money to every school district, but giving some extra funds to districts that are especially poor, with high numbers of non-English speakers, etc., since the new formula provides for this. Bottom line: public education gets increased 15% overall.

Now, what if HB 346 had stood alone, increasing public school funding 15% across the board. In the middle of a nasty recession and fiscal crisis? Not a chance! But it doesn't stand alone. Tied to HB 331, HB346 is the price you pay for helping out the poor. You bleeding heart liberals wanna help the poor? Pony up and raise taxes, because HB 331 forces districts to help the poor. You parents wanna help education in general? Vote for HB 346 because helping the poor is the way to sneak a 15% increase into the budget. Catch22! How clever!

In Greek mythology, two monsters guarded opposite sides of the Straits of Messina between Sicily and the Italian mainland. Scylla, a female beast with six heads, lived on a rock and gobbled up sailors whose ships passed by too closely. But if you veered away to avoid Scylla, you encountered Charybdis, on the other side of the straits, who sucked up enormous quantities of water and spit it out three times a day, creating whirlpools which sucked ships down, drowning all hands. In The Odyssey, Odysseus is forced to choose which monster to face in order to get through the straits.

The Siamese-twin nature of these two bills presents some legislators with a Scylla or Charybdis decision. If you represent Gadsden School District in the legislature, one of the poorest districts in the state, with a high proportion of non-English speaking students, there is a strong temptation to vote for HB 331 since it will definitely help raise the proportion of funds going to the district. But on the other hand you can only get this by voting for HB 346 which demands a huge tax increase of .75%. Remember two years ago? The South Valley not only said "no," but "hell no" to the governor when he asked them to raise their taxes by .25% to fund the Spaceport in Sierra county. The governor lost an enormous amount of respect in the South Valley because of his strong support for this tax increase, which barely squeaked by with a margin of less than 300 votes. And Bill McCamley, without fully understanding the implications of his support at the time, essentially threw away his chances of becoming a congressman when he backed the governor in the Spaceport tax election against the wishes of the South Valley. The deadly whirlpool caused by the Charybdis of tax increases is still fresh on peoples' minds in the South Valley.

Odysseus chose to face Scylla rather than Charybdis, on the grounds that he would definitely lose some sailors, but he felt this was better than to risk losing the whole ship to Charybdis, should he try running through at whirlpool time. Representative Joseph Cervantes chose to vote against HB 346, presumably on the grounds it was better to forego extra funding for poor students than to raise taxes on all citizens in the middle of a serious economic downturn and in an especially poor area of the state. His aunt, Mary Helen Garica, chose to vote for HB 346, presumably on the grounds that it was better to increase taxes than to pass up an opportunity to improve the funding levels of schools throughout New Mexico and especially to Gadsden.

Had I been forced to cast a vote under these circumstances I probably would have voted to increase the taxes, but I certainly understand and respect those who voted the other way. It simply isn't fair to force legislators to make such choices.

Apart from the trickiness of making the two bills contingent upon each other, there is a serious policy flaw in this approach: nowhere in these two bills are increases in funding tied to increases in student performance, which is woefully inadequate in most school districts in the state. But here we enter into the arena of school politics: dealing with performance issues is not what the school establishment and entrenched interests are all about. But that is another story.....

1 comment:

madden said...

The lower valley is very much overlooked in this very large county and it is more important than ever that the creation of jobs become our counties number one priority. Spaceport is a project that most counties anywhere in the U.S. would give their right arm for in these times of layoffs.

The Governor has made a very bold move to try to help southern New Mexico with his commitment to the spaceport which could have the impact along the lines of a another White Sands economy in our county.

The people have voted to support the spaceport and the lower Valley needs to get behind it. The children of the lower just might work for a company that build satellites or rockets someday.

Keep the faith everyone... the casino and the spaceport may be answer to your prayers in these times.