Learning the State Budget

“You know, I may be only one of three reporters in the state that feels this way, but I have really learned a lot during this budget process.” The reporter shared his thoughts a few hours before the conference committee announced a budget compromise.

What he said helped me see how far I’ve come in learning to make changes in the state budget. Usually the money the state spends is carved up by a legislative budget committee working with the executive branch. But this year the process was much more public. The debate showed a very clear difference between the Senate Democrats and the Republican Assembly.

In the end, the budget is a compromise and the final deal was made in a way that adversaries could walk away from the table and claim victory. When the final spin dies down, many problems will remain. Partly because we have not resolved the difference between people’s beliefs on what government does.

Perhaps we never will.

Meanwhile, programs the state funds - schools, local government, nursing homes - continue to struggle. One particular concern is our local schools. In our area, some schools are doing very well but many are suffering. It is only through wise decisions by the superintendents and school boards that local people have not seen serious cuts.

We expect our local school board and superintendents to get the job done. But the tools they have to work with are not adequate for the job. Sooner or later we are going to be asking them to do a job that can’t be done.

There has been much talk on both sides of the aisle about adequately finding schools. But in the end, we haven’t solved the problem. The best we can say is that we’ve taken a small step forward.

In the first few months of my service as senator I began to meet with local schools. I started to understand the problems we face funding schools. The state pays not quite two thirds of the cost of schools. The rest comes from property tax. But two thirds is only an average. Some districts receive more; some receive much less. The reason is a complex state formula that is supposed to make payments fair. Unfortunately it is not working - especially for rural schools.

I set out to find a way to change the formula. I met with legislative gurus on school finance; I talked to senators and those who had written reports about the formula. I talked to superintendents and I read report upon report.

I found friends among those at the state agency that pays for schools. With their help, and the help of my amazing chief of staff, Linda Kleinschmidt, we were able to develop a change to the school funding formula that would help rural schools.

We called the new aid “sparsity”. The name comes from the word “sparse” meaning “not many students out there in the hills”. The aid is targeted at poorer rural schools.

I learned that in the legislature, it is much easier to keep things as they are rather than change things. Even a small change is met with resistance as those who have are not inclined to help those who have not. Getting the legislation written was much easier than getting it passed.

Through these past months, I quietly worked to show others the benefits of changing the formula. Rural Republican and Democratic districts alike benefited from the changes. Getting change accomplished means finding friends on both sides of the aisle.

Many different compromise offers passed between Republicans and Democrats over the summer and throughout the fall. Our new formula stayed intact and is now part of the compromise budget we will vote to pass this week. In the end, this happened through the tireless efforts of Senate Majority Leader Judy Robson who kept rural schools on her list and in her heart as she negotiated a very tight budget.

Many of us are quick to criticize government when it doesn’t work right. To change things starts with a good idea but then takes time, hard work and support from others.

Indeed I did learn a great deal from this budget process. But thank God, it is over.