As featured on p. 218 of "Bloggers on the Bus," under the name "a MyDD blogger."

Friday, January 30, 2009

Single-Issue Silos Deeply Harmful To Fundamental Change In Sacramento

This certainly made for a great picture - thousands of teachers in Pershing Square in downtown LA rallying against budget cuts to education. You can put it next to state employees rallying against education cuts. And nurses rallying against health care cuts. And, I don't know, park rangers rallying against park closures. But social movements don't happen in a vacuum. History shows us that coalitions built across platforms succeed in galvanizing public opinion and forcing through progress. Teachers angry about education cuts is something I endorse. They're well within their sphere of expertise to complain about that area of the budget. I don't know that it's helpful at all in the midst of this crisis. Especially when it's so narrowcast and specific.

The California Teachers Association released a TV ad Friday that says "some Sacramento politicians are going too far" in considering changes to the schools budget.

Specifically, the teachers union attacks a proposal floating around the Capitol to give school administrators more flexibility in how to use so-called categorical money that is currently earmarked for class-size reduction.

"Tell your lawmakers: Ending the class size reduction program won't save California one dime. It only hurts our kids," the voice in the ad says.

Now, nobody wants class sizes to inflate. But when each single-issue silo zealously guards their small piece of power and tries to call to action only for that specific piece, several things happen. First of all, the counterpoint is easily cast as "special interests clinging to power." Second, there is absolutely no continuity of message across the groups, and in fact their messages can conflict with one another. As I've said many times, unity is the great need of the hour. And there seems to be no comprehension on the part of CTA or frankly any other progressive or labor group that budget money is fungible and everything that the state does affects their single issue in one form or another.

By way of example, how great would it be if CTA put up an ad saying, "Times are tough, and yet the state spends billions of dollars warehousing low-level drug offenders who need treatment and not jail. We need education and not incarceration. Tell the governor and your legislator to end 30 years of failure in our prisons and return to sensible sentencing policy to save us billions and help fund our schools." It's really not that hard. Even Dan Walters can do it.

The fastest growing segment of the state's deficit-ridden budget, by far, has been its prison system, reflecting severe overcrowding, generous labor contracts and federal court pressure to reform inmate health care.

"Corrections," an ironic misnomer, has jumped from less than $5 billion a year to more than $10 billion in the last decade, over twice as fast as school spending, the biggest budget item. It now costs about $45,000 a year to feed, clothe and medicate each of the state's 170,000-plus inmates, or roughly five times what taxpayers spend on a typical public school student. And that doesn't count what it costs to supervise tens of thousands of parolees.

One element of any plan to close the state's immense deficit, as well as relieve the overcrowding that invites federal intervention, must be to get a handle on prison costs by shedding some low-intensity inmates.

We could see the state employees union demand to restore the car tax. The firefighters could call for full funding of education. Etc.

If each group goes after their piece of the pie, ultimately we're all going to lose. History teaches us that only with a movement united together can we create prosperity and security for all Californians.

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