LEGISLATORS are pretty happy about the state budget they passed Tuesday. Maybe not as happy as they are about the roads funding bill they passed last month, but pretty content.
In their telling, they increased annual funding for public schools and colleges, provided money for building needs for poor school districts, provided pay raises for correctional officers at the adult and youth prisons and covered the cost increases in the employee health insurance plan. They also took on a huge new obligation to bail out the State Retirement System, almost entirely with tax money, and made the first year’s down payment.
Of course, when you spend $8 billion, it’s easy to come up with an impressive list of all the great stuff you did. And that’s a valid thing to do. But it has to be balanced by the list of important things you didn’t do.
I’m not talking about the wants that didn’t get met. I’m talking about those two most basic things that state law requires the Legislature to fund at specific levels: public education and local government.
I’m talking about how, year after year after year, the Legislature refuses to either fund them at the level required by state law or else change those laws. Instead, it simply inserts a proviso into the budget suspending the mandatory-funding laws for the year.
A formula that was written into state law decades ago requires the Legislature to provide $327 million to cities and counties next year to pay for state services that state law requires them to provide. The budget legislators just passed provides $223 million. That’s barely more than two-thirds of what state law requires, and the percentage has been dropping for the past decade.
If your boss paid you just two-thirds of what she promised when you took the job, you’d probably quit. State law doesn’t allow cities and counties to quit.
Another formula that was written into state law decades ago requires the Legislature to provide $2,984 per “weighted pupil unit.” I’ll explain that term in a moment, but for the moment think of it as meaning “per student in our public schools.” The budget legislators passed this week provides $2,425 per pupil unit. That’s a more respectable 81 percent, but still it means the schools are getting shorted by 19 percent of what the law says they must be given — which translates into a shortfall of more than $450 million.
That formula was written into law in order to guarantee additional money for students who cost more to teach. It does that by providing a “weight” for each student. So, for instance, an average elementary school student, the easiest to teach, gets a weight of 1.0, while a “visually handicapped” student gets a weight of 2.57. So if the state provided the full $2,984 per weighted pupil unit, a school would receive $7,667 for a blind elementary school student, and $2,984 for her unimpaired classmate. With me so far?
In 2014, the Legislature created five new add-on weights, the most significant of which was a poverty weight of 0.2. So if that average elementary student is poor, he would count as 1.2 instead of 1.0, and if his blind classmate is poor, she would count as 2.77 instead of 2.57. I mention this because those additions increased the total weighted pupil units by nearly 20 percent — which means it increased the funding requirement by nearly 20 percent.
Those new weights mean we’re not making an apples-to-apples comparison when we compare how close we came to full funding in 2013 to how close we are now. In fact, if we had not added those new weights in 2014, we’d be providing about 90 percent of what the law requires, which shows lawmakers have been making progress. And that’s encouraging.
But the fact is that legislators knew that adding those weights would increase the amount of money they are supposed to provide to the schools. And the Legislature is still far short of paying for the promises it has written into state law — by about $450 million.
I don’t know whether we need to spend $2,984 per weighted pupil unit, or more, or less. I don’t know whether it costs cities and counties $327 million to provide those state-mandated services, or more, or less. And neither, frankly, do legislators. But this is what I know — and what they know: These are the amounts of money that state law says they must spend.
If the amounts are too high or too low, then legislators need to change the laws. But they don’t change the laws. Why is that? Perhaps because they know they could never get a consensus. Perhaps because they fear a thorough review would show they need to spend more.
Or perhaps they just figure: Why bother? We’re the Legislature; we can do whatever we want. Every year we can just suspend the law for another year, and spend whatever we want. Whatever is convenient.
That didn’t change this year. It might not change next year. And there’s one way to ensure that it never changes: That’s for us to get mesmerized by legislators’ brag lists and forget this other part of the story. That’s why we can never forget it.
Ms. Scoppe writes editorials and columns for The State. Reach her at email@example.com or follow her on Twitter or like her on Facebook @CindiScoppe.