Friday, January 4, 2013

Fiscal Cliff, Line in the Sand, Brick Wall, Compromise, etc, etc

Many lament that our Congress has become dysfunctional: that its members are so polarized by their idealism that Congress is unable to reach a compromise without first bringing the country to the brink of disaster.

Relax, it's nothing new. The art of negotiation involves using whatever leverage one can muster, and often times one of the most powerful levers is the clock. Even little kids learn to use deadlines to their advantage, knowing that throwing a tantrum during the morning getting-ready-to-leave ritual is a great strategy for forcing the parents to give in.

Congress is all about leverage. This last-minute deal to supposedly avert the so-called Fiscal Cliff was really a concoction of little deals, each one trading a Representative's vote for some small victory. Maybe the leadership promised to bring forward a piece of legislation the Representative had introduced, but was going nowhere. Maybe it's a small earmark in the Appropriations Bill, scoring the Representative a few points in his/her home district. It could be a promise to help campaign and raise funds in the next election, the lifeblood of every politician who hopes to stay in office. This is a delicate and complex game which successful politicians learn to play pretty quickly.

This is the main storyline of the recent movie about Abraham Lincoln, which portrays how the President had to wheel and deal to get enough votes to pass his beloved 13th Amendment. He too had a clock to beat - he wanted to get the Amendment enacted during the Lame Duck session, while he had the ability to buy votes by promising defeated Congressmen a future job in the Federal government. That leverage would be lost once the new Congress is sworn in. We deservedly call Lincoln one of our greatest Presidents, and he was that because he was a master of negotiation and leverage.

Another reality of the political process is the propensity of politicians to kick the can down the road. The President has a definite term in office: a maximum of eight years. That puts some urgency in their actions, especially when a President wins a second term - their last chance to accomplish anything as an elected leader.

But there are no term limits on members of Congress. They can serve until they die, and some do, gaining more power the longer they serve. This in turn makes them more likely to be re-elected, simply because they - from their seats of power - can bestow great rewards upon their constituents. 

Few understood this better than the late Sen. Robert Byrd, of my home state of West Virginia. He unabashedly ran on the claim that he was the number one economic engine for the State, and he was right. That's the reason there are many many things in West Virginia named after him, and that he was the only living person to have a stature erected of him in the West Virginia state capitol. During his tenure, the federal government built in West Virginia the National Computer Center for the IRS, the National Fingerprint Center for the FBI, the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (home of the Robert C. Byrd telescope), and I'm sure many other facilities. He was never seriously challenged for his last several terms. His death is a great economic blow for the state.

Most folks in Congress never have that kind of power. For them, the path to re-election is to play along with the powerful few in Congress, to be subservient to the big campaign contributors, and to pander to his/her constituents, even when another course of action would be better for the country as a whole.

And so we get these deals which alleviate the immediate pain, but do nothing to cure the disease. Some will think we've avoided the cliff, but we're really just joining Wile E. Coyote in his temporary respite from gravity...

Someday our nation will have to deal with spending which is wildly out of whack with any reasonable projection of revenue. Many programs and services are going to have to be dialed back so we can concentrate our resources on those things which are truly important. Of course, deciding what's important is an extremely individual and subjective exercise. Negotiating a broadly acceptable solution won't be without pain, but we voters need to signal our elected officials that we're ready for them to start the dialog, and that we won't punish them for making hard decisions.

The deal worked out by Congress this week didn't cure anything, but that wasn't their goal. Their mission was to avoid taking too much political risk right now by kicking the can down the road, leaving the hard issues for the future.

This is true at all levels of government, including Hilliard City Schools. The spending trajectory our district is on cannot be supported without larger and more frequent local tax levies, in my opinion. Nor do I see the State or Federal government bailing us out. That's the reason why, at our Oct 22, 2012 School Board Meeting, I voted against approval of our latest Five Year Forecast, and will continue to do so until we engage in meaningful dialog about shrinking the nearly $30 million cumulative cash shortfall projected by the end of FY2017. The sooner we start that dialog, the more time we have to explore options, and the sooner we can put the adjustments into place. 

Others seem to prefer kicking the can down the road until we reach our next Fiscal Cliff - probably in 2014. This has been the modus operandi for a long time:  things are great, things are great, things are great - WE NEED TO PASS A LEVY OR BAD THINGS WILL HAPPEN!

What do you want?  What will you do to motivate the School Board to carry out your wishes?


  1. More pay to play, in both sports and all extra-curriculars.A realization by our parents that everything comes at a cost and some of us don't want to pay for others 3 kids to be in 3 sports or arts programs, with college level staffing. Tighter reins on salary increases - folks are whining about federal workers just getting a .05% raise after 2-3 years of freezes - and those were true freezes, not the fake freezes we see in teacher salaries. Higher contributions for benefits. Full job descriptions for administrators available on the schools web site - seems we have quite a few "assistants to assistants" on staff in the central office. College level courses paid for by those who take them - 5th year foreign language in a HS is ridiculous as well as inefficient given the number who take the class. Contracts that call for longer in-school hours, perhaps to tutor the kids who need it, rather than dubious claims that ALL teachers spend hundreds of extra hours outside of the building working on whatever ( I know some do and I know most do not - sorry but that is my take on it) And as Paul has mentioned before - more honesty a YEAR OR TWO in advance of levy request as in "If we don't pass a levy in two years, then this, this, and this, is absolutely going to be cut - it is this Boards responsibility to spend only what we have" and then - DO IT. Don't sandbag us with specific cut announcements AFTER the levy has failed. Give me more responsible spending tied to the current economy, and I will think about giving you more money. Sorry if I rambled a bit....


    Under the leadership of Dale McVey and the vote of the board we are watching a high stakes poker game. We know when the money runs out and when the levy will be required. Yet we pass a 5 year plan and take no action to delay the red ink. Much like passing the exit sign posting no gas stations for 5 miles when you only have gas for 3 miles.

    In the past all we hear is the State is the cause for our low mileage bus. The board votes to spend all money yet the voters control how much you have to spend. Yet we do little to look how to increase our mileage.

    Dale has selected the path to what I fear will be the fall of our district. However it is the children who will pay the price. Thank you for your efforts, but the bus will run you over.

    We have but one path to take, let the district fail! When there is no money approved levy after levy then maybe some board members will wake up.

    The next big issue is contract for teachers. Ir I remember I think the names Whiting, Teater,Keck and Maggied were all backed and approved by the HEA. Wait is that not the group who the members they approved approve the next contract.

    While issue 5 failed remember Dale felt is was proper for school employee Rick Strater to be at the statehouse protesting issue 5?

    I just finishing reading the recent mailing from the district. I never asked the district be stingy, I asked for them to be effective and efficient. But it does ask the question why wait to know to be stingy?

    I'am looking at my post card asking me to vote for Issue 78 from Dale. It states since 2005 we have reduced the budget by $5.6 million and the passing notes says eliminated spending $19.6. Wow $25.2 million over 8 years or a little over $3 million per year.

    While it is nice to honor your commitment of making the levy last 3 fical years. It is my understanding you will make it last until the voters pass the next levy.

    I see no reason to pass a levy when the district and board fail to have a conversation with the voters.

    So tell your board members now before they sign a new contract we will not pass the next levy. Put an end to the WE NEED TO PASS A LEVY OR BAD THINGS WILL HAPPEN. Lets say no 2 or 3 times and see what happens.

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  4. This is the 7th year of this blog, spanning nearly 400 articles, and over 5,000 comments. A goal has always been to encourage debate, but with civility. The comment above crossed the line, in my opinion, primarily because of its sneering tone made behind the mast of anonymity, and so I have chosen to delete it.