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Local opinion columnists

Politics: An exercise in compromise

By From page A8 | November 18, 2012

One of the many attractions of Idaho as a retirement destination two years ago was the conservative political environment the state afforded. I was one of the many who agreed with political columnist Dan Walters (whose column appears regularly in the Daily Republic) that the Golden State was no longer governable because of the huge divide between political parties.

What was once a vibrant and healthy state whose legislators found some common ground has morphed into something less desirable where bickering and partisanship prevail. Unfortunately, I think that disease has also found its way to Washington, D.C.

It seems politicians want simple solutions to complicated issues. One side of the aisle wants to raise more money (taxes). The other says we should cut spending. Most citizens know that the answer exists somewhere in the middle.

From my vantage point, it appears California’s preferred solution is to find more money. Case in point: November’s successful Proposition 30 and Fairfield’s Measure P. Save the schools? Just write a check for about $6 billion each year by raising the sales tax 0.25 percent for a few years. Oh, and also increase the state’s tax rate on the wealthy for the next seven years.

Little, it seems, has been published about just where the money will go to help education. But somehow the money will improve performance in the classroom, right? After all, more money should result in improved education.

Idaho ranks near the bottom of spending per student among the 50 states (not necessarily a good thing), but continually ranks above the national average in achievement. It spends considerable less than California per student yet outshines California students when it comes to results.

The recession hit Fairfield hard, just like many cities across the state and nation. Voters (about two-thirds of them) decided it was worth increasing sales tax within the city borders 1 percent to generate about $60 million over the next five years to help the city bail itself out of its fiscal quagmire.

Police and firefighters will benefit, as will seniors, after-school programs and those using city parks. Those were the areas of greatest concern for city leaders who feared drastic cutbacks without the infusion of new money.

Maybe it’s a simpler life in Idaho, but our cities and state government are moving along without the near disaster proportions of California. Instead of sales tax rates approaching 9 and 10 percent in some communities, Idaho survives on 6 percent tax. State income taxes were about the same as California’s (that is until the new tax was approved in California on Nov. 6). Unemployment rates are about the same.

But there are some differences.

Idaho’s legislature passed three sweeping bills last year to truly reform the education system, one that ended tenure and limited collective bargaining for teachers, one that revised and essentially improved its pay-for-performance structure for teachers and one that guaranteed technology in the classroom for every student in the state.

There’s an interesting thing about those education reforms in Idaho: They were funded with existing dollars, with the exception of the technology proposition. There was some concern that long-term costs of computers would exceed estimates.

From Washington, D.C., came $2.8 million in national teacher union dollars to help fund a campaign to rescind those three laws. It was successful, so what were deemed revolutionary changes are, for the time being, shelved.

Maybe it’s a good thing, because now Idaho legislators will incorporate more discussion by teachers and settle on some laws that will keep most stakeholders, at least, somewhat satisfied.

My central point in all this is that cooperation and concessions are all part of the political process. Based on post-election discussion, that probably will occur in Idaho. I’m not sure that the political process in California (and in Washington, D.C.) incorporates those principles.

Idaho is far from perfect, but legislators here seem to understand that spending your way out of fiscal difficulty and raising taxes may be the quick solution but not the only and wisest. The legislature was willing to work on reforms that were tax neutral. Raising taxes was never part of the equation.

Voters were not ready to embrace all those changes, but at least no one had to reach deep into their pockets to pay for the reforms, even if they stayed in place as initially approved.

I hope Californians and Fairfielders get some bang for their bucks. More than $6 billion per year for schools and $60 million over the next five years for Fairfield adds up to a steep price tag for citizens who continue to be hammered from a recession that has lasted far too long.

The economic liability of California living was another reason I retired to conservative Idaho.

Bill James is a retired Daily Republic editor and publisher now living in Meridian, Idaho, a suburb of Boise.

Bill James


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