Restoring school funding

State revenue is estimated to increase 4% next fiscal year, according to the December projection released by the Iowa Revenue Estimating Conference, a non-partisan group that sets the parameters for legislative work. The conference’s December estimate is the one that is supposed to be used to set a budget, unless the governor throws the budget out the window. That’s what happened last year when K-12 public schools got skewered with a 1.25% increase — about half the rate of inflation.

If total state revenues will be up 4%, then schools deserve at least a 3% increase in appropriations for next year to make up for the slight this year.

State politicians continue to act as if the sky is falling because farm income is off by 38% this year. Still, total revenue is up. That tells us that:

A) Farm income is not as important to the state economy as it was, say, 50 years ago and we should quit acting as if it is the lead economic indicator; and

B) Even with farm income down, most farms will make decent money because of bin-busting yields.

In fact, the Iowa economy is doing pretty well. We should treat schools pretty well, too, but we haven’t.

We insist on reforms and accountability when we starve schools in the first place. Gov. Chet Culver, a Democrat, put the vice on public education starting in 2009 and Branstad, a Republican, has not let up. Last year the Senate Democrats and House Republicans came up with a 2.25% increase, but Branstad found it irresponsible and vetoed the line item that contained half the appropriation.

The Senate will push hard for at least a 2% increase for next year, President Pam Jochum said. That’s not good enough. Schools lost ground by about $55 million last year. We need to replace that and add another $100 million, at least, if we are serious about world-class public schools.

Branstad has toyed with the idea of retiring from politics but has made no announcements. If he wants to run again, he cannot continue to wage war on school districts. Rural districts with stagnant or declining enrollment get hit doubly hard with the austerity budget in education. Branstad will endanger his Republican majority in the House if he continues to play hardball with our most important public investment: education.

The governor would be wise to stay in the background and approve what the legislature orders up for education this year. It sounds as if the House Republicans are not intending to scorch the budget in a year approaching a general election. It will be up to the Senate to carry the ball for education so that it gets what is at least deserved: 3% or better this year. It should become a rallying cry.

Hot air

As expected, the vaunted climate deal reached in Paris has no teeth and should do little to stunt the growth of global warming. World leaders congratulated themselves for saving the planet over a long weekend. Down from the lead paragraph in the news stories is the note that the deal is completely voluntary. Fire up the oil burners, because we have takeoff.

We know how well voluntary conservation efforts work. Jimmy Carter wore a sweater and talked about our energy problems. Ronald Reagan told us to turn up the thermostat, the crisis was over. About that time, the Gulf of Mexico Hypoxia Task Force was convened (in 1980) to figure out how the Upper Midwest could voluntarily change its ways to limit the size of the dead zone that is wiping out fish and a flotilla of fishermen.

The hypoxia task force is still meeting. The dead zone in the gulf grew again last year, to about the size of Connecticut, over 6,000 square miles.

Likewise, the Des Moines Water Works has been complaining for decades about high nitrate loads in the Des Moines and Raccoon River. In response, Iowa drafted a voluntary nutrient reduction strategy. Now one half of one percent of Iowa land is planted in a cover crop. Nitrate levels in the Raccoon are higher than ever, partly as a result of wilder weather wrought by climate change.

We can hope that voluntary works. We can wish it.

But it doesn’t.

Without incentive, positive or negative, the laws of physics that apply to human behavior prescribe that a body in motion stays in motion. We will not change without an external force — either a penalty or an incentive levied through something like a carbon trading system — being applied. American politics already rejected a carbon trading program. Car buyers vote with their pocketbooks for bigger gas guzzlers while hybrid models go unloved. Those who call for more passenger rail service are treated as hopeless sentimentalists.

If we are serious about clean water or carbon loads, we must recognize that voluntary doesn’t cut it. The government has to make it worth our while either through stick or carrot. Neither is being applied in either circumstance.