House and Senate leaders gathered behind the podium in the press conference room in the Legislative Building early Monday night to talk to the assembled media about the agreement they had reached on a final budget for the 2016-2017 year.
There were no copies of the budget available for reporters to read and ask questions about. Instead legislative leaders held forth, boasting about the size of the raise for teachers, how much they put in the state savings account and the importance of the latest round of tax cuts in the spending plan.
It wasn’t an accident that the news conference came five hours before the actual budget was released just before midnight. Giving reporters the details beforehand would allow them to ask tougher questions.
Leaving them in the dark made it more likely that the headlines in the papers and on television the next morning would be about the teacher raises, the tax cuts and the increased savings, the points that lawmakers wanted people to see first. And they were right.
Think of it as the softer, gentler public face of the GOP in this election year. After years of disputing that teachers were underpaid, House and Senate leaders want the public to think that teachers and public schools are now their top priority.
Never mind that teacher pay fell dramatically for years and that per pupil spending remains below pre-recession levels when you adjust for inflation.
Or that the final budget spends $34 million next year on the completely unaccountable school voucher scheme that directs taxpayer money to private and religious schools, many of which openly discriminate against LGBT students and use textbooks that teach students that dinosaurs and people co-existed on earth and that most slaves were treated well.
The pseudo-science and warped history are so bizarre that they rarely make into the news stories about the voucher program but that’s where a lot of the money goes. The budget also calls for an increase every year in voucher funding until it reaches $145 million in ten years.
Neither House Speaker Tim Moore nor Senate President Pro Berger told reporters that the budget also weakens the regulation of the sketchy virtual charter schools now operating in the state and siphoning off more money from traditional public schools.
The final budget also does not include a House provision that would change the way school grades are calculated under the A-F grading system by counting growth in test scores as 50 percent of the grade instead of the current 20 percent. That would allow schools with high percentage of low-income students to earn higher grades if their students are improving.
Under the current formula more than 90 percent of the schools receiving a grade of D or F are low-income schools even though the students at many of them are making significant progress. The current stigmatizing formula will remain in place.
And it’s not just in the budget where public schools are being underfunded and dismantled. The Senate this week voted to allow low-performing schools to be put in something called an achievement school district that could be turned over to an out-of-state for profit charter school company to manage.
The House has already passed a version of the same plan that has failed miserably in other states that have tried it, most notably Tennessee. Ironically, lawmakers also approved legislation that makes it harder for the state to close charter schools that are struggling.
And it’s just not education where the rosy headlines don’t reflect the reality of what’s happening in the General Assembly.
The spending plan that Berger and Moore were bragging about was doomed from the beginning when they decided to limit the size of the budget with an arbitrary formula that keeps overall state spending well below historical averages as a percentage of the state economy.
That means that state retirees will receive a small one-time bonus next year instead of a real cost of living increase and state employees will get a much smaller raise than they deserve.
It also means that many of the deep cuts made to public schools and the university system in the last few sessions to pay for massive tax breaks for corporations and the wealthy will not be restored and the new inadequate levels of investments are the new baseline.
The Senate also passed a constitutional amendment this week that would put those tax cuts in the constitution and force future legislatures to put several hundred millions of dollars in savings for the next several sessions even if state revenues are lagging or there is an emergency.
The goal is to lock the cuts and woefully inadequate budgets in place, to make it harder to give teachers and state employees more meaningful raises, to repair the damage to education, or to mend the new holes torn in the human services safety net in recent years.
Don’t be fooled by the first day budget headlines. There’s nothing kinder or gentler about this budget or this General Assembly leadership.
It’s far-right ideological business as usual.