The federal stimulus bill that President Obama has signed into law very nearly cost Idaho taxpayers $84 million (and still could). That's what we get for being responsible with money. To avoid that, the federal government is basically making us cut public school spending in the current fiscal year (something that no one planned to do) and surrender our state sovereignty. This is what's wrong with the stimulus package. It punishes sound fiscal behavior and rewards incompetence with more of the same.
In 2003, Idaho created a public school stabilization fund to prevent cuts to public education. On Feb. 9, the Idaho House of Representatives voted 68-1 to start transferring money out of the stabilization fund to protect schools from budget cuts in the current year. The Senate was getting ready to vote on the measure. Had that transfer of funding passed and been signed into law (and it most certainly would have), Idaho would not be able to spend federal stimulus money to prevent current-year education cuts from happening, because at that point there would have been no cuts to prevent.
Because of our sin of fiscal responsibility, Idaho would be out millions. Meanwhile, other states less fortunate or states that had misspent or had no backup savings would be allowed to benefit from the federal government's largess to prevent cuts to public schools, while Idaho couldn't.
So now, in order to profit from the federal government stimulus plan, we're going to have to cut spending for public schools and then sit back and wait for the feds to bail us out, even though it was within our ability to solve this problem ourselves. This is a no-win situation. Sovereignty has a price. In this case, it's $84 million.
Spend irresponsibly and the federal government will come to your rescue. States in this case are no different than banks and automakers.
By taking the federal cash, we're submitting ourselves to the federal government's dubious whims and priorities. We're becoming servants of the federal government. And we're buying into and consenting to federal legislation that includes foundational elements needed to start universal health care, guts the welfare reforms of 1996, starts new and unsustainable programs and deficit-spends us into oblivion.
Just about every program implemented by the states requires yearly project reports to be filed with the feds so that the government can assess whether we're doing everything right.
One of the most troubling aspects is the law's wording that practically hands the keys of our schools to the federal government. The law is a near guarantee that Idaho (and other states) can enact no meaningful education reform for years to come and will continue to subsidize wasteful spending by public schools and state colleges. It restricts how much states can cut from public schools, colleges and universities. While that limit is not likely to not impact Idaho's public schools, it could well influence spending decisions for colleges and universities.
Such a policy mindlessly mandates continued waste. Recently, the University of Idaho told lawmakers that the school is cutting 41 degree programs that have only 55 students. Under this new law, there is no great impetus to reevaluate and jettison the programs that don't make sense or have limited support from students. The university will get its money no matter what.
The federal government also will require that Idaho spend its money first on its priorities: making sure poor school districts and wealthy districts have teachers with equal skill sets; the improvement of state academic standards; and the development of new assessments for English-language learners. All of these items go to the head of the line, even if here in Idaho we decide that an investment in more classroom supplies or teacher merit pay should take precedence.
Several years ago, then-Lt. Gov. Otter encouraged me to read Barry Goldwater's "Conscience of a Conservative." As a result of Otter's suggestion, this book from 1960 is one of my favorite reads. Goldwater writes that "federal aid to education invariably means federal control of education." Well, this is what federal control looks like. It's not pretty. If we're not careful, the only role our sovereign state will have is the duty to obey our federal masters and submit our annual reports to Washington, D.C., on time.
Wayne Hoffman is the executive director of the Idaho Freedom Foundation, a nonprofit, non-partisan think tank. E-mail him at [email protected].