By the numbers: the case for school vouchers in Arizona

This was originally published in the Tucson Weekly
It’s budget time up at our state Capitol, and the local dailies are trotting out the old stories about how Arizona is 57th in per-pupil spending compared to other states. O.K., they only claim 49th out of 51 (including Washington, D.C.)–but so did the states of Florida, Illinois, Tennessee, Idaho, Louisiana, Pennsylvania and Utah, along with Arizona, in 2004. Perhaps we are closer to 57th than we think.

A lowball figure of a little more than $6,000 is given for Arizona per pupil spending, though surveys that included such miscellaneous items as capital purchases and new construction put the figure at around $8,500–alarmingly close to the national average.

What? You had no idea that the state was spending $8,500 per student per year? Well, you are not alone. According to a survey conducted by Hart and Teeter of Educational Testing Service, 72 percent of Americans do not have an accurate idea of the spending rate, and about half think that it is less than $5,000 per student.

Interestingly, the average tuition charged by private schools in Arizona is around $3,700. Why, if the state would just issue vouchers to parents in the amount of $4,000, they would end up educating twice as many students and still have a bunch of money left over for administrator junkets.

Yikes! I said the “V–word.” The National Education Association will not like that! They certainly would not want the parents of the students to screw things up after they spent all that time and money lobbying at the Arizona Legislature.

Speaking of the National Education Association, their Svengali sway over the mainstream media explains not only the fear-mongering over spending (including the use of fudged numbers), but it also explains the fixation with spending rates for government schools. It’s a twofer: It encourages the spending of more money that could potentially be spent on the members; and by making money the only factor that determines quality, it takes the focus away from member performance and accountability. Nice!

Unfortunately for the NEA, in spite of all the mainstream media hand-wringing over expenditures, the general public isn’t buying it. According to the same ETS survey, 51 percent of us do not believe that the problems facing American government schools are about money; rather, we believe that a combination of factors including lack of parental involvement, lack of discipline, ineffective teachers and administrations, etc., are of greater concern. Only 30 percent believe that the greatest problems are money-related. If that does not set the government-school bureaucrats to squirming in their seats, consider this: Only 6 percent of the people believe that there is no waste in education spending.

Unlike the professionals, we the people understand that it is how well the students are learning, not how much we are paying for the system, which is of the utmost importance. Few people outside the government education establishment would argue that government schools do anywhere near as good a job as private schools–and private schools do it for half the money. If resources were directed to schools that succeed–private or government–and denied to schools that fail, we would end up with lots of successful schools.

The NEA is a labor union; as such, its interests are in the success of its member-workers. The interests of the parents are in the success of their children–the students. If parents (who, by the way, generate the revenue in the first place) had a say in directing revenue, the interests of the students would be protected.

It’s time for an education voucher program in Arizona. Then parents could once again parent their children, and the NEA could go back to negotiating contracts and working conditions for its members.

Intergenerational Corporate Welfare

The mayor and council of the Old Pueblo are very enthusiastic in their support of HB 2702. This is the bill that would extend the Rio Nuevo Tax Increment Financing Plan (TIF) from 10 to 40 years.

The interests of the local politicians are obvious. Imagine the mayor and council as a group of children (not too hard). Downtown Tucson is their sandbox, Rio Nuevo is their shovels and pails, and the TIF is the big load of sand that will make playing in their sandbox so much fun!

They have a great angle with which they hope to win support, and end discussion. They are quick to point out that this is not a tax increase – true. They then explain that this legislation allows some state sales tax revenue generated in Tucson to stay in Tucson – also true. Now, who could argue with that? That’s about sums it up, right?

Well, not exactly; they conveniently stop short of telling the whole story. The tax money is earmarked for the Rio Nuevo downtown redevelopment boondoggle. Remember the pamphlet with the artist’s conceptions of aquariums, arenas, rebuilt Spanish Missions, museums, and spaceport? Sorry, I got carried away, there were no spaceports in the original plan; but hey, City Manager Mike Hein said we have to think in terms of decades, not years. Another way of saying that is to think in terms of billions, not millions of dollars.

The original idea of the TIF was to provide funds to get Rio Nuevo off the ground so that the private sector would step in and run with it. Why, in just the first six of the ten-year plan it has…well…uh…never mind that – the money stays in Tucson, O.K.!

Many, including former state legislator John Kromko, are grumbling about the people being tricked. Terms such as “bait-and-switch” have been used. They argue that the people did not vote for a forty-year plan, and if that’s what the city government folks want, they should run it by the people, instead of the state legislature.

Actually, whether or not Rio Nuevo has already proven itself a disaster, or will in the future, is not the point. Do we really need to genetically engineer the downtown area? Why can’t we let it grow and evolve in a more natural, market oriented way? Should we take a bad corporate welfare scheme and extend it across the generations?

Keeping money in Tucson is pointless if it is spent on a project that lies somewhere between stupid and immoral.

So the people of greater Tucson watch as the aspects of the plan that they found most attractive get dropped, and the funding plan explodes from ten to forty years – or millions to billions, which ever you prefer. Do you suppose that they might be thinking about this when they go to vote on the Regional Transportation Authority Plan and sales tax this spring?

Those who delight in the Dems’ implosion need to watch what the other hand is doing

This was originally published in the Tucson Weekly 
Many conservatives, Republicans and others have taken solace in the goofy antics of Ted Kennedy, Howard Dean, Nancy Pelosi and other Democrats on the national stage. The feeling is that, in alienating mainstream America, they are hurting themselves and their cause.

But Republicans should not become too complacent. When a magician performs a sleight-of-hand trick, he keeps your attention on one of his hands while the other does the trick.

The McCain-Feingold legislation did not get “big money” out of politics, but it did change the flow. Now the “soft” money must be routed through entities such as Moveon.org and America Coming Together. These organizations steer the big bucks essential to the Democrats and provide the agitprop that keeps the base engaged (some might say “crazed”). This is one reason that the national Democrats often appear deranged when they speak–they are pandering to those who hold the purse strings.

The same is true of Republicans, but to a lesser degree–they do far better with the tightly regulated “hard money” than do the Democrats.

This suck-up goes one way. These Leftist groups see the Democrat leadership as wimpy sell-outs. If you go to www.moveon.org or www.dailykos.com, you’ll find no pictures of prominent Democrats or reports on their activities. You will see a big emphasis on grassroots activities–recruitment appeals, local action plans, profiles of regular people in the trenches, etc.

So, while the Democrat leaders are flailing their arms and screaming (the hand you are supposed to watch), the Leftist groups with the money, propaganda and human resources are ignoring the national scene while focusing on municipalities and state legislatures (the hand you do not see).

I found an example of this new strategy of the Left in an organization called Progressive Majority, based in Washington, D.C. (www.progressivemajority.org). On their Web site, they stated, “In this political cycle, Progressive Majority will provide early seed money for promising progressive candidates running for local and state (non-federal) office.” Note the pointed denial of support for anything national.

Will this think-national, act-local approach work? Well, it did here. Last October, true to its word, Progressive Majority contributed $5,000 to Tucsonans for Accountable Government, an “independent” campaign committee that ran negative ads against Republicans Kathleen Dunbar and Fred Ronstadt. Combine that with money from the Service Employees International Union and the United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW), and you can generate a lot of ill will.

As of this writing, the home page of Progressive Majority features a photograph of Karin Uhlich (one of two “progressive” Democratic freshmen on the Tucson City Council) taken at the election night celebration at Club Congress. The caption reads, “… Karin’s win is an important step for both the LGBT community and for progressives nationwide.” (Emphasis added.)

So what does this mean for the Old Pueblo? One can only speculate. I suspect that our freshman council members are bigger ideologues than they would have us believe. Watch their hands closely, or they may perform some sleight of hand that takes your money, property and rights, and–“POOF”–makes them disappear.

Home Rule – No Change Back from Your Billion Dollars

In addition to the three Council races, this November’s ballot will include a referendum on Home Rule. Now, most of us associate the notion of “Home Rule” with either Ireland or India, but this is this case, Home Rule will free the City of Tucson from spending limits imposed by the Constitution of Arizona.

The history of this constitutional law begins in the late 1970’s, when property tax rates in California rose so quickly that many people could no longer afford their homes and lost them. The people revolted, and the result was a change to the California Constitution that put spending limits on municipalities. Fearing that Arizonans might become similarly Californicated, our legislature passed a similar change to the Arizona Constitution.

So, a baseline was established in 1980 that defined the upper limit of municipal discretionary spending. Of course, provisions were included to increased the limit concomitantly with both inflation and population growth. That way, the same level of service could be maintained ad infinitum – without violating the limit.

This point cannot be overemphasized. New Police and Fire Stations will continue to be built with existing increases based on growth and inflation. Nothing will have to be cut or reduced if Home Rule is not approved, we’re talking new or increased services here. The City wants to abandon the limit so it can spend more money on new services. To do this, it needs voter approval.

City Manager Mike Hein knows that threatening plagues and locusts if they do not get voter approval will not play well in Tucson; so, he approaches the sale from a totally different angle. He points out that revenues are increasing faster than the limit is rising. This will result in a projected nine million dollar surplus in fiscal year 2007, and as much as twenty five million in fiscal year 2008. Without abandoning the limit, that money cannot be spent, and will lie fallow in a bank account!

Now, only a government employee is offended by money in the bank, or thinks that this abhorrent situation will drive voters to the polls to help him get at it! The way the City sees it, the nine million is the carrot, and you are the donkey. The way I see it, it’s like going to a hardware store and buying a set of tools for ninety dollars, handing the clerk a one hundred dollar bill, and instead of handing you ten bucks, he gives you an extra wrench. I think the people of Tucson would rather have the change, thank you very much.

It is true that the Home Rule option, if passed, would last for four years; at which time the voters would get a chance to give it a thumbs up or down. This does make it somewhat less frightening. I used the term “option” because there are other tools that can be used to increase the limit; for example, in 1983 and 1987 Tucson made permanent increases to the baseline to bump up the limit beyond the accommodations for inflation and growth. It makes one wonder, why are we not increasing the baseline as in those previous years? Why are we now turning to Home Rule?

I suspect that it would be difficult to spend all the skyrocketing projected surpluses with a simple baseline increase. Perhaps the answer to Home Rule option selection lies there.

In any event, I find it humorous that the only solution, of which the City seems to be aware, to the spending/revenue numbers not lining up is to increase spending. You know, you could make them line up by reducing the revenue. Did that occur to anyone downtown? This is an election year. Any candidate who wants to win should issue a press release stating the following: “If elected, I will take trash collection out of the enterprise category, put it back in discretionary spending where it belongs, and use the projected surplus to reduce or eliminate the trash collection fee!” There are five Council candidates out there. Who wants to win? Anybody?

City Budget

A one billion (that’s one thousand millions) dollar budget has been approved by the Council for the City of Tucson. Boy Howdy, that’s a bunch of money! The Federal budge ammount has always been incomprehensible, and now, so is our city’s.

The good news is that there are no huge increases, or new spending – only nominal increases in police and fire. Wait, can this be true? I thought this was a Blue County? What happened to subsidising the breakdown of the family, supporting illegal immigration, and “public art”. Come to think of it, I haven’t seen any good “public art” since the sewer statue at Glenn and Mountain came down.

Anyway, I like the “back to basics” approach to dispensing tax money. The Council is developing some libertarian tendencies; well, four out of seven are. Jose Ibarra and Steve Leal followed their usual socialist tendencies and voted “No” without comment – though in the past they have complained about insufficient funds for recreation services and other stuff that belongs in the private sector. Joining the in the “No” vote was Shirley Scott, who kept her committment to vote against anything with a garbage fee (someone ought to tell her that she’ll never get anywhere in politics if she’s preoccupied with committments). Wildcard Carol West joined Kathleen Dunbar, Fred Ronstadt, and Uncle Bob Walkup in voting “Yes”.

I’m not quite sure what to make of this. Have the Republicans gained new respect for the taxpayer? Have they, unlike their national level counterparts, the confidence to do the right thing? Will we see smaller municipal budgets with concommitant tax reductions in the future? Well, perhaps not, but if you like this direction, remember their vote when you vote in November. That vote will determine the fate of Dunbar, Ronstadt, and Leal – all of whom are up for re-election.

Dr. Strangelaw or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bond

Question One: Sonoran Desert Open Space and Habitat Protection; Preventing Urban encroachment of Davis-Monthan Air Force Base.

Wait a minute, this is just a gift to the environmentalists – I mean ranchers – no, I mean the developers – uh, maybe the central planners? What is this bond, and how did it get on my ballot?Good questions all. Some answers may be found in the evolution of the Bond Beast, which has its roots in the Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan (SDCP). In 1998, the Pima County Board of Supervisors created a Citizen Steering Committee, a “90 member group of individuals who represent the full spectrum of interests within Pima County” to provide input. Attendees of these committee meetings tell me that the members fell into three camps: 1, environmentalists; 2, ranchers; 3, developers. They all disliked and distrusted each other. Most of the committee’s time was spent with each group staring steely-eyed at each other like Blondie, Angel Eyes, and Tuco in “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly”. In the end, they managed to agree on some general recommendations which were passed onto the supervisors. Although essentially window dressing, the committee did contribute to the image of a Board of Supervisors that really wanted input from the citizenry (yuk,yuk), and a consolidation of interest groups into camps to which the supervisors would make their appeals for passage of the Bond Beast.

One entity pointedly ignored in all the bone throwing is the City of Tucson. This comes as no surprise, in light of the relationship of City and County – which is similar to that of twin sisters vying for a date with the same guy. One might recall the 1997 bond which promised funding for transportation improvements within the City, specifically, to 22nd Street and Broadway. After the bond passed, the County decided that the money earmarked for 22nd street would be better spent elsewhere. The fur really flew over that one. Councilman Ronstadt took to the media and howled about what a bitch the County was being in doing this. Regarding the current Bond Beast, the County has deigned to allow the City to offer suggestions and share ideas with county staff – but the city is having none of it. Showing a surprising ability to learn from passed mistakes, City Manager James Keene, in a letter dated February 6, 2004 to Chuck Huckelberry, Pima County Administrator, demanded a legally binding contract:

“It is critical that we have an agreement more binding than the bond implementation ordinance, so that the debacle of the 1997 county bond vote and program is not repeated. I propose that this agreement form the basis for subsequent intergovernmental agreements on specific projects.”

As in Jazz music, periods of silence can express as much as periods of sound. The following is from a letter dated March 3, 2004, from Mr. Keen to Mr. Huckleberry:

“ To date, almost a month later, I have received no response from your office. In my earlier letter, I indicated that the exchange of memoranda and letters is not the vehicle to generate a cooperative agreement…Valuable time has been lost already…”

Note to Mr. Keene: You are being told to go play in your overused, under-maintained streets.

On the other hand, it is certainly appropriate to question why the City thinks it ought to include everything from “Intergenerational Centers”, to the “Wilmot Branch Library Relocation” to Davis-Monthan Environs Land Acquisition” in an open space bond. My friends in the environmentalist camp were slack-jawed when they read Question One, with its specific reference to the Davis-Monthan Air Base buffer. “We never discussed this in the Steering Committee”, said one friend. Perhaps Chuck Huckleberry put it best in a letter to the Tucson Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce dated February 13, 2004:

“It is worth remembering that a small bond question for Davis Monthan of $1.5 million was defeated by an 83 percent “No” vote from Tucson Voters in 1994. This at a time when this bond question was only one of a number of steps being taken to secure Davis-Monthan against base closer (sic). Past open space bond questions, however, have been approved by wide margins.”

So the Davis-Monthan addition is a way for our public servants, the supervisors in this case, to pass a project that they know the people do not want. Well, it looks like we are going to get what’s good for us whether we like it or not.

The environmentalists are getting the obvious – choice chunks of land set aside through easements or outright purchases on someone else’s dime. No one has yet to explain to me how State Trust Land will be safer from development in the hands of the supervisors, than in a trust that was established as part of the enabling act of the State of Arizona. I suppose that, like a second marriage, open space bonds are a triumph of hope over experience.

What about the ranchers, you ask? What’s in it for them? For the most part, in southern Arizona, ranching is more of a lifestyle than a going concern. With the threat of expanding development, the changing rules regarding State Trust land, there is little security for local ranchers. Would it not be wonderful if they could, say, sell a usage easement to Pima County, while at the same time the County purchases similar easements to adjacent State Trust Land? Why, these Hobby Ranchers could have their lifestyle in perpetuity, and a wad of cash to boot – enter the Bond Beast!

How about the developers? They are getting the short end of the stick, right? Well, not exactly. Aside from some whining from the Tucson Chamber of Commerce, the developers are keeping their guns holstered, because the Bond Beast serves them. That’s right, if the plan goes through, Pima County will obtain a Section Ten Permit from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service which will provide many exemptions for the entire jurisdiction. No more environmental or endangered species problems. No more pesky spotted owl suits from the Southern Arizona Center for Biological Diversity – or anyone else for that matter. I do not know if Don Diamond smokes cigars, but if he does, he ought to smoke a genuine Cuban Cohiba if the Bond Beast prevails.

Goodness! Whatever is a voter to do? One thing is for sure, if you believe that providing nice views for upper-middle class homeowners, subsidizing hobby ranchers, and clearing the way for developers fall in the realm of the duties of the Pima County Board of Supervisors, vote “Yes”. If you believe that the supervisors are worthy of the massive control this Bond Beast will give them, control not seen in this country outside of Portland, Oregon, vote “Yes”. However, if you are uncomfortable reaching into other people’s pockets, if you believe that the supervisors are only human, if you have concerns over converting land from the private sector to government control; then send fifty bucks to the Nature Conservancy and vote “No”. Tell the Pima County Board of Supervisors that you want them to stop concerning themselves with amassing power and control, and to start concerning themselves with transportation, and other basic services.