A SUPREME COURT order to repair a school system that has been depriving children in poor districts of a decent education for decades, if not forever.
A crumbling highway system that needs an additional $1.5 billion a year — equal to nearly a quarter of the state’s general fund — just to bring it up to standard.
An ethics law that makes too many unethical actions legal, hides too much information from the public about officials’ conflicts of interest and allows legislators to police their own compliance with the law.
A judicial selection system that allows those same legislators to keep judges on a short leash.
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And all of this against the backdrop of a tax system that is more loophole than whole, a spending system that focuses on maintaining the status quo rather than addressing our state’s needs, a convoluted executive branch that is hamstrung by an over-controlling Legislature that doesn’t even understand how it operates, and cities and counties that are called on to do more and more of the state’s work but given too little money to do it and barred by that all-controlling Legislature from raising the money themselves.
Welcome back to the 2015 General Assembly, which convenes at noon on Tuesday.
With everyone from business leaders to Joe Commuter up in arms over potholes and gridlock, legislators were all set to pump tens of millions of dollars into road and bridge repair when the Supreme Court ordered them to improve public education. Little unobligated new money and less appetite for raising taxes made an already difficult proposition seem nearly impossible.
So here’s a modest proposal: Reform first, and then figure out the funding.
Indeed, lawmakers would do well to follow that basic approach — begin with the fundamentals — for nearly all the big challenges.
Will it take more money to provide poor children in poor districts with teachers as qualified as those who teach better-off children, and the extra class time and other aid to make up for the huge deficit they bring to the classroom?
Possibly, though we won’t know until we clean up the governance — from too-tiny districts to school board members more interested in keeping their friends and relatives employed than educating children — that drives up costs and makes it tougher to attract top teachers and more difficult for good teachers already there to do their best jobs. We won’t know until the state focuses on identifying the best teaching methods rather than promoting the programs with the best lobbyists and pursuing ideological goals that have nothing to do with improving the education that the constitution requires the state to provide all children.
Focusing first on those changes will constitute a good-faith effort to begin complying with the court order and improve the chance that the poorest students get the education they need to grow into the successful adults that we all need them to be if our state is to succeed.
Will it take more money to bring our roads and bridges up to grade? Certainly. But whether we need as much as highway planners say is up for debate. And it’s going to take a lot more than it should if we don’t reform how we spend it.
The only thing worse than having our road-building decisions made by a horse-trading commission that’s not accountable to the public is having them made by two horse-trading commissions that aren’t accountable to the public — one of which is controlled by two state legislators. And that’s what we have.
So the first thing legislators need to do is eliminate those commissions, add a fix-it-first component to the law and require — rather than just suggesting — that road decisions be based on objective criteria. Then we can figure out what it’ll cost.
And when it comes time to fund both education and roads, it’ll be easier with a spending system that starts with a review of our needs and how well existing programs are meeting them rather than one that assumes we need to keep doing everything we’ve ever done. And if we need more money, we can get it in a way that does less damage to our economy, and to individuals, if we overhaul our tax system, to eliminate most loopholes and better balance our reliance on the sales, income and property taxes.
For two years legislators promised to overhaul the ethics law, and for two years they have failed. Of course, their bills never were adequate. They would do well to consider what makes sense to the average voter. After all, the purpose of an ethics law is to deter public officials from putting their personal interests ahead of the interests of the public, and the reason we do this is so the public will believe that the government is working for the public, rather than for the benefit of public officials — which is essential to the stability of a representative democracy.
Some argue that a string of high-profile convictions and administrative settlements shows that the law is working, but the main purpose of an ethics law isn’t to punish wrongdoing (though it needs to be able to do that); it’s to deter wrongdoing.
Requiring officials to disclose their sources of income, giving investigators more tools to catch wrongdoing, imposing tough penalties on violators and letting an independent commission investigate legislators all reduce the temptation to violate the law. Indeed, it’s easy to imagine that independent investigators would have questioned convicted former House Speaker Bobby Harrell’s illegal expenditures when they were still in the gray area, before he started fabricating expenses for which he could reimburse himself.
The Harrell saga also focused attention on the judiciary. Did judges give Mr. Harrell more than every possible benefit of the doubt, and ignore the law, because they depend on the Legislature to elect and re-elect them, and to set their budget, and Mr. Harrell was the Legislature’s top judge-maker? We may never know, but the fact that such questions are even imaginable points to a serious constitutional flaw: One branch of government has a stranglehold on another.
Quite simply, the executive and legislative branches should both play significant roles in the selection of judges. We believe the governor should appoint judges who are vetted by an independent merit selection commission and confirmed by the Legislature. But the specific method matters less than ensuring that neither branch be able to intimidate our judges — or to create that appearance.
For that matter, we need a rebalancing of power throughout government. Lawmakers have taken significant steps to chip away at a Reconstruction-era system that so divides the executive branch as to make it impossible for it to serve as a check on legislative power. Still high on the to-do list: Let the governor appoint the directors of the state education and agriculture departments; and consolidate related agencies, to reduce overlap, improve coordination and make it easier for governors — and legislators — to keep up with what agencies are doing.
Legislators also need to loosen the reins on cities and counties. That’s needed simply because power should be devolved to the government closest to the people — particularly since city and county council members often are elected by more voters than are legislators — but we simply can’t shift more responsibility to them until we let them decide whether, how and how much to tax their constituents.
This is a daunting list, and by no means complete. There is much more that demands action — starting with a child-protection system that fails to protect children from abuse and neglect and a criminal domestic violence law that fails to protect women from domestic violence. And even if lawmakers manage to make every change on the list, our state still will have problems left to correct, and opportunities left to capitalize on.
But these changes will improve our state on a number of important fronts, and remove significant obstacles to further improvements, and if lawmakers can do that before they go home in June, they will have spent their time, and our resources, quite well.