I got in trouble for wearing a band aid on my forehead yesterday during floor debate. Perhaps it was recognized as political statement on behalf of fellow teachers rather than as a real sterile dressing designed to protect a wound.
Today we came to the attic of the old courthouse where the Joint Finance Committee meets at 7 am on budget setting mornings. We gather with coffee or orange juice around several big folding tables where the heat rises. Typically we share our “motions” or give each other a bit of fair warning as to where each of us proposes that a budget should be set. How many employees will we give an agency? How much for rent and utilities? Any replacement items, new computers, cars, servers? And what money are we cutting? Where will funds they do get come from? From the federal government, a dedicated fee, a grant or from the big $2.4 billion state tax bucket called the general fund?
This morning we had to make a decision we have been putting off while the world adjusted to what the more than one billion in stimulus funding will mean. We had to decide how much to cut state employee pay. There were seven motions or proposals. In the heat of the attic in this big old cement and stone building anything seemed possible. As we passed out the motion sheets in that room that used to be part of the county jail, the options seemed to contract.
By the time we got to our committee room in front of the cameras our choices were down to three. Three bad motions made on the table in that comparatively cold and empty room. All three motions proposed to cut state employee costs by 5%. The worst one of these passed. It cut every state employee’s pay by 3% and then mandated 2% more in employee cost be cut through furloughs, keeping positions vacant and if necessary through layoffs.
The House members were lock step for this motion and its 3% salary reduction and 5% net cut in personnel funding. Why in any rational way they would want that, I do not know. We could have given more room for agencies to use furloughs more or vacant positions. We could have used dedicated funds or stimulus funds to keep it at 4% or even 3% total personnel cuts. But leadership in the House has been twisting arms for weeks. I’m not sure what any state employee ever did to them or if it is just that those particular Republican leaders need to keep hating government, even when government is our tax dollars, people’s jobs, people’s lives.
So I feel awful. I tried to make a motion that was only so slightly better than the motion that we did pass. It was a band-aid for a gaping wound. Our Democratic votes are band-aids on gaping wounds in a state government run by people too often angry at living in a nation increasingly blue and progressive. We serve here at the mercy of a political party increasingly hateful toward cities, astoundingly favorable to big industry tax breaks and deregulation at the expense of the families, farms and small businesses upon which our economy and unique existence as a state depends.
Some days, while I love my colleagues as individuals, the politics get so sad and ugly that I feel like a twig in a big red river flowing ever more quickly toward the edge of the earth.