Friday, March 12, 2010

Budget debate resolves...Bravo Gary Herbert and Ron Bigelow! Carl Wimmer tries reverse psychology...

The budget battle over Howard Stephenson's mini-omnibus policy insert at the last second finally resolved late Thursday night. Charter school funding is still a difficult issue to which I don't have the answers, and good legislative process is important to me whether I agree with a bill or not.

One thing I am pleasantly surprised but also confused by is the increase of WPU back up to current levels...along with the explanation that the state is still not funding growth. There's something I'm not quite getting. The original plan was for the WPU to go down about $90. Each new or continuing student would receive the same funding, but a lesser amount than last year to reflect the higher numbers caused by growth. If each student next year is funded $2577 via WPU, then districts will receive increased funding for each new student...or in other words, the growth in student numbers will be funded. Lisa Schenker reported above that "Districts will absorb that lack of funds in other areas." The principal state funding mechanism to the districts is the WPU. I don't understand which state expenditures the districts can cut millions of dollars from without impacting WPU.

Bravo to Gary Herbert and Ron Bigelow, as well as most of the House, for their firm roles in preventing any last minute strong-arming by the legislators who were valuing their pet project over transparency and rational policy discussion. Rep. Bigelow gave us the "telling it like it is" quote of the debate: "If there is any bill in this session that has subverted, bypassed and held our process to be the worst process, it is this bill."

Howard Stephenson cleverly, but falsely framed the debate in two ways in order to spin things his way. First, I explained in my last post why his "phantom student" argument, a new tactic this year, is a fundamental lie in dealing with locally assessed property tax. The district does not have significant marginal costs when adding or losing an individual student; property tax funds are not distributed per student. Stephenson repeated this meme several times.

Second, Stephenson claimed that there is money going to districts when students leave for a charter school that would otherwise go into WPU (the main state funding mechanism), and that's why it's important to shift some of the local money. Unless Senator Stephenson is talking about some obscure pot of money somewhere that only he knows about, that just isn't true. State funds are distributed per student via the WPU. For each student, the district gets the designated amount of money. Local property tax is voted on by the residents of a specific geographical area and then spent on overall programs which benefit large numbers of students at once. At no point does it follow around individual students; at no point are there "phantom students" as students move in and out of the district; and at no point can these locally approved funds be diverted into the statewide fund for WPU allotments. So what is Senator Stephenson talking about?

The bill bounced back and forth several times as the Senate would not agree to have the charter school funding changes deleted from the bill. To listen to the first debate Thursday morning when the House substituted the bill and took out the charter funding change, click here. (This is a list of the debates on all the bills that morning. The easiest way to find this debate is to scroll down to the Part 2 subheading, and then count 9 links above it to the SB0002S01 debate.) You can listen to or watch the conversation--I think watching often makes it easier to understand who is talking. Here are the highlights to pay attention to and the time in the debate they happen:

Rep. Bigelow gives an excellent 4-5 minute summation of the procedural and policy concerns with the original bill while proposing the substitute bill. He also explains the inherent difficulties of applying local funds to charter schools and how the substitute bill reflects the work of the education subcommittees.

Rep. Craig Frank declares his willingness to take care of pet charter school funding via bad process. "This year is the time" regardless of whether my colleague purposely prevented the proposal from being vetted.

The weirdest comment of the debate. Rep. Carl Wimmer stood and disagreed on the substitute based on "process." He wasn't necessarily voting because of the content of the bill, but the "process." He then claimed that Stephenson's original 16-hour-old bill has been vetted, but the "changes" in the substitute dating back to the education subcommittee's recommendations had not been. Therefore, black is white, up is down, and he voted against the substitute bill.

This is the money quote from above by Ron Bigelow. He acknowledged Wimmer's outspoken concern for process and then declared "If there is any bill in this session that has subverted, bypassed and held our process to be the worst process, it is this bill."

The motion to substitute passed a few minutes later by a count of something close to 50 yeas to 20 nay votes. The substituted bill then passed 71-4.

After Gary Herbert personally aided a compromise which took out the "monkey wrench" of the surprise charter funding, a final substitute bill was agreed upon and passed Thursday night by both houses. I didn't have time to fully comprehend the different changes in this substitute bill, but it appeared to be very reasonable upon first inspection.

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