Monday, June 2, 2008

But do Utah voters actually care about education funding?

Or ethics reform? Why do we tolerate what we do? I just don’t get it.

I know the public in general cares about education funding. This comes from personal discussion and many, many polls like this one which show that the public, even Republicans by a 15% margin, prefers increased education funding even more than a tax cut. But does it affect how they vote?

Vouchers were soundly defeated in the general election, largely because of their damaging effects on public education funding. But that has not translated into victories for moderate Republican candidates who oppose vouchers (though I have some hope for Becky Edwards in Leg. District 20), and I am sincerely doubting it will lead to a huge influx of Democrats winning legislative races in November either. Even the Attorney General Mark Shurtleff, who is running against Jean Hill, the lawyer who easily defeated him in the highly publicized legal showdown over the voucher referendum petition last summer, is completely destroying her in early polling. He’s even claiming to be a “defender” of education funding. Some rightwing posters have been crowing on message boards how this shows that the voucher debacle is forgiven and forgotten and the leftwing teachers trying to “infiltrate” the Republican party have been beaten.

And as for ethics reform, Pignanelli and Webb unfortunately appear to have it right:

Pignanelli: Voters are practical and decide what is important to them. No candidate has won or lost because of legal lobbyist gifts, campaign contributions or internal party machinations….

Webb: …Despite all the hand-wringing over ethics, coziness with lobbyists, gifts, playing rough with opponents and so forth, Utah has a pretty clean political industry compared to a lot of states. Does anyone have clear evidence of down-and-dirty graft, corruption and vote-selling?”

Webb’s justification of Utah not being as bad as the other states brings me no comfort and seems to me a pretty weasely justification. A friend and I noted that we can only remember Ferrin (passing charter school laws and then building them himself for lots of money—though it somehow hasn’t stuck to his partner, Rep. Morley) and Tilton (nuclear plant speculation and blatantly lying about his involvement at first) getting defeated in convention or primaries semi-recently, and those cases involved very blatant conflicts of interest beyond the normal lobbyist schmoozing, rules fixing, and arm twisting by senior legislators.

So we don’t care unless the legislator is practically writing the check to his business through legislation? Or we support the incumbents for increasing education funding during the years of enormous surpluses as the legislative leadership contends? (see my 5-31 post) We support silly justifications of defeated legislation passed via omnibus bills holding hostage more popular legislation?

What about the voucher referendum inspired the public to come out so firmly against the legislature? And even though I believe less than half of eligible voters actually voted last November, will the passion over that issue ever be duplicated?

I really am looking for opinions here—is the continued support for incumbents support for their records, firm party loyalty (blind or otherwise), apathy, ignorance…? Does the average Utahn even know what the omnibus bill is? And that’s after the recent lawsuit and spurt of editorials…


Anonymous said...

It looks like you are guilty as charged.

Do you care that Rep. Sheryl Allen works for Davis School District?

Or that Rep. Ronda Menlove works for Utah State University?

Or that Rep. Litvack's wife works for Salt Lake County?

Or that Rep. Winn works for a state college?

Or that Sen. Greiner works for Ogden City?

Or that Sen. Goodfellow works for a state college?

Or that Rep. Dee works for Weber County?

Or that Rep. Holdaway works for Granite School District?

Or that Rep. Brad King works for CEU?

These folks have conflicts of interest out the wazoo, but all we hear about are private sector conflicts of interest. Government sector conflicts of interest rarely get any attention. Why is that?

Government employees are just more pure and delightsome than the rest of us, aren't they?

Anonymous said...

Education funding doesn't impact people's votes because deep down inside they know that increased funding really won't improve education much, if at all.

They've seen the tremendous increases in education spending over the last three decades and they haven't seen significant improvement.

Several weeks ago, I posted a link to the NCES website showing how U.S. and Utah real per student spending has increased substantially over the years (did you read it?), and yet all we hear is more, more, more.

UtahTeacher said...

I read your link:
It leaves all of the same questions I originally posted about. It is averaging in much smaller special ed. classes, and it is still unclear exactly what measurements for teachers it is using as pupil/teacher ratio and claimed class size differ by over 25%. As I originally said--the stat's show in Utah we have an average class size of 22.5 I believe. Every family with kids in school knows that is a lie, but it is the one area where the interests of legislators and state school officials coincide, so they happily discuss that number as truth. I went to school with classes of around 30, I currently teach classes of around 30, and those will be growing because we are protecting the core classes less next year as our elective class sizes are getting out of hand, averaging 40+ students. We have never been able/willing to put enough money into the system to keep up with growth and reduce class sizes.

And as I wrote--there is the possibility that you are right about the public not believing in the efficacy of increasing education funding. I don't believe it and the polls don't show that, but there is a disconnect somewhere between what the polls show and who gets voted in year after year. It really is a mystery to me.

And as to ethics reform, conflicts are only part of it. Lack of campaign finance disclosure, lack of transparency, personal use of campaign funds, special lobbyist access, and dishonest tactics like omnibus are as big of problems.

I see the conflicts inherent in a part-time legislature and choose them over different problems with a full-time legislature. I can see where people are coming from that would like a full-time though. Realtors and developers disproportionately dominate the part-time legislature however. The conflicts of interest in public employees voting on legislation that affects them, or other private sector workers like lawyers voting on legal issues, etc., is less by an order of magnitude than a single individual or company developer being able to pocket millions in tax breaks, loans, or favorable purchases of useless land in Sandy--or even get to incorporate their own town and appoint the city council without putting it to a vote of the citizens being annexed into the town--from a single decision.

And my point in this post was just to say that public perception of egregious personal benefit (i.e. Tilton and Ferrin) is the only demonstrated ethics factor that ousts incumbents. And that seems to be true from either one of our points of view.

Anonymous said...

You made the same fallacious special ed argument last time. Even if some or all of the spending increase is due to special education expenditures, it still demonstrates that taxpayers have been spending more per student adjusted for inflation. If too much of that increase has been spent on special ed, then maybe that needs to be changed, but don't go saying that taxpayers aren't spending more money per student in inflation-adjusted dollars. You may not like where the increase has gone, but that doesn't mean that an increase has not occurred.

Anonymous said...

The 22.5 figure refers to pupil-teacher ratio, not actual class size.

Yes, pupil-teacher ratio and class size are not identical, but if PTR decreases, so does actual class size. There is certainly a correlation. The fact that these two terms are not interchangeable does not negate the claim that taxpayers are spending more per student.

The major point here is that PTR has decreased substantially in the past three decades, and the only ways to reduce PTRs is to have fewer students or hire more teachers, or both. Hiring more teachers means one thing: spending more tax dollars, and that's exactly my point.

While you may not like pupil-teacher ratios as a measure, reducing this ratio over time is proof that taxpayers are spending more per student than ever.

Anonymous said...

You say developers and realtors dominate the Legislature. How many can you name?

I named nine (that I know of) legislators (or their SOs) that are employed by state and local governments. They may be more that I don't know of. I just went of information on the legislative website roster, and some of it is vague.

I would disagree that public employee conflicts of interest are of less concern than private sector conflicts. While you talk about one-time million-dollar deals, the tax and spending changes that the legislature makes every year can have revenue impacts annually for decades.

When a public sector employee votes for a tax increase or against a tax cut, that's not just a one-year deal. In some cases, it's an annual occurrence in perpetuity.

UtahTeacher said...

Hi Anon,

Sorry for the delay in responding. First, you are a repeat commenter with relevant things to say--I think it would make it easier if you registered a Blogger/Gmail account. You don't have to show your email so it can remain anonymous, but a name would make arguments easier to follow for me and others reading the comments. For example, I bet UtahTeacherissmoking is still available. =)

Second, exactly how they are calculating that Pupil/Teacher ratio is very relevant. I know counselors are included in that stat and I agree they are important. But they have zero impact on classroom size. The overall experience and other needs of students may be met, but it doesn't mean they're getting more individual instruction. Or are aides being counted? They help in some ways, but a class of 40 with a teacher and an aide is nothing like two classes with two teachers. Their cheaper salary can make them a stopgap measure though.

So I'm still skeptical about increased levels of inflation-adjusted spending per student. I don't see compared to my schooling here in Utah. Is technology eating it up? Are we mixing up huge increases in spending attributable to growth?

UtahTeacher said...

Anonimal,(another possibility?)

I also meant to include differing types of classes (i.e. putting 5-15 student special ed. classes in the same stats with more typical classes) in my 2nd paragraph above.

As to realtors/developers and conflicts, I think the influence is strong. I'm fairly certain their campaign and PAC contributions far outstrip any other industry/group in Utah. And the influence isn't just realtors who are legislators. Curtis is a lawyer, but has been involved in a couple things benefitting Anderson Development and now the Sandy trail land deal(not a law, but influence). Gibby down in Mapleton was lobbying from Buttars' office last session and has strong connections to Tilton, Morley, Dmitrich, Valentine, and that other guy from Spanish Fork, among others.

And your comments on public and private sector differences are a little extreme I think. No tax increase gets pushed through by united cartels of public employees and no tax cut gets passed by just virtuous entrepreneurs. There is a broad mix of interests on both sides. I'm a little more of a free trade, flat tax type person than some teachers, but there are some "bleeding heart liberals" too. There are some hardcore business interest types like Utah Taxpayer's Association that I feel are overly rigid philosophically and hostile to public education, but business interests support many causes that are more liberal than my beliefs as well. I support more openness with teachers and probably different priorities for existing money than you do, but I'm not advocating for a tax increase.

And that's to my point--I don't think any politician, from any industry or sector, votes for a tax increase to personally profit. There's the political baggage of such a vote and public employees pay taxes as well. Tax increases only come from broad coalitions and I think those legislators usually believe they are doing the right thing. We can legitimately disagree with them, but no one is making a mint off of it...unless you're an industry that also swings an offsetting tax break.

I agreed with the health insurance tax break for self-employed people last session because it's fair. If big businesses can write it off, why not individuals? I definitely didn't support the Delta tax break. We can't give breaks to every industry that rattles their sabers about leaving (I think they were lying) and contributes to Senator Bramble's campaign. I have very mixed feelings about the sales tax increase on all of us to pay for all of that.

This has gotten kind of circular. I don't think public employees are more likely to be tax-and-spenders, the tax increase was spear-headed by Curtis and Neiderhauser. Development (or any big industry) interests can make millions directly and instantly from one decision. (I didn't support the Granite tax break for the Cottonwood Mall redevelopment either.)