I will protect your pensions. Nothing about your pension is going to change when I am governor. - Chris Christie, "An Open Letter to the Teachers of NJ" October, 2009

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The Other White Meat

Bruce Baker's been posting some fascinating stuff on school budget "pork."
What is School Finance Pork? School finance pork is state aid that is currently being allocated to districts that otherwise don’t really need that aid. In this case, need is defined in terms of the needs of the students to be served AND in terms of the ability of the local public school districts and its residents and property owners to pay the cost of those services. In overly simple terms, some local public school districts can easily pay for the full cost of their needed educational programs and services on their own and with much less effort (tax effort) than others. Allocating state aid to these districts while depriving others with greater student needs and the inability to meet those needs is inexcusable. Cutting aid to needier communities who are unable to replace those lost revenues, while retaining aid to the wealthy is inexcusable. That’s PORK. And like other political pork-barrel spending, it exists because state legislators negotiate for state aid formulas that bring something home to their own districts.
I'm down with all that, but I do think there's a useful political function for pork:

Take Social Security. It would be very easy to classify it as welfare, except for the fact that everyone gets it. Making it universal allows it to gain political support I don't think it would have otherwise.

Same with pork: if you know you're going to get some money back from the state for your district, you're going to be less likely to think all state aid is just a big transfer of wealth away from your town's district over to someone else's.

Of course, the analogy breaks down in that both the SSI benefit and the tax are capped; still, I'd think getting more aid to districts with more poverty is harder when there are some more affluent districts that are not getting a thing.

I'm thinking we'll see whether I'm on to something as we watch the inevitable budget fight coming up in NJ. Will Christie's 1% back to the 'burbs be enough to stop a war with the cities?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately, my experience consulting with several state legislatures on the design of state school finance systems leads me to believe that localism and self-interest are such strong overriding factors that it is rarely if ever the case that legislators will consider the good of the whole - whether they are on the formula (getting aid) or not. When they are "on the formula" or on the bubble, the goal is to figure out how to get more of it, even if at the expense of higher need districts.

Kansas legislators from wealthy suburban districts negotiated for a need adjustment for kids in new facilities that was bigger than the cumulative effect of the poverty and ELL weight in poor neighboring districts. And only the wealthy 'burbs had those new facilities. This article on the topic is awesome: http://www.pitch.com/2005-04-14/news/funny-math/

So, while I too would like to believe that the burbs would be more involved and more considerate of the public good if they get a little something back, I've been frustrated to find that typically if they get a little something, they simply want a little more of that something - again, even if it means taking it from their neighbor.

It's all about having enough of a voting block - a big enough alliance in the legislature to control the distribution and to craft arguments for why you and your allies need more. SFRA has few of those features - like the Census based special ed funding, and the 1/3 that goes outside the equalized formula. SFRA also screwed with the Geographic Cost Adjustment to drive funding levels up in Somerset, Morris and Bergen (by bastardizing an otherwise logical cost adjustment method). These are what I refer to as "Tricks of the Trade" which are slightly different from, but can be related to Pork.

It's sad, but the self-interest - bringing the money home - even if it's pork - is such a driving factor that it really seems to overtake otherwise logical behaviors like the ones you indicate above (buy-in).

All of my friends who were legislators or worked with legislatures (Kansas, Texas) and did have that broader view have since left (some quitting mid-stream) their legislative positions out of frustration that the process has decayed so badly. [and these were generally moderate republicans in red states].