Thumb on the scales?: A tale of two fiscal notes

Education Committee's work sessions: Monday, March 30, 2009

With a day-long public hearing on the repeal initiative and two full days of work sessions on dozens of controversial bills, this week marks the beginning of "crunch time" for the Education Committee.

While decorum dominates to a fault in the warmed-up committee room, any bill detail which momentarily boils the discussion over the pot rim, so to speak, into either irritation or humor is particularly telling.

Not everyone right off sees the humor in a bill's attached fiscal note. As any stand-up comedian can tell you, context and timing is everything. But, for one sublime moment, it all fell together Monday morning.

The setup was the work session on LD 190, Representative Johnson's bill to form a legislative study to re-evaluate the EPS school funding formula, a subject that provokes both increasing grumbling from rural areas in these fiscally-straitened times and a certain defensiveness from those who understand the concept generally to be a vast improvement over preceding methods for distribution of General Purpose Aid to schools.

No one objects overtly to studies. In principal, information in all degrees of impartiality is useful and that was the committee's mood as it thumbed through the pages of the bill -- until it came to the fiscal note which tagged the cost of the study at a quarter of a million dollars.

This was too much for Senator Schneider who immediately drew the double-barreled inference that this was both a ham-fingered attempt by the Department to kill the study and also kitchen-door largesse to Dr. Silvernail's operations at MEPRI.

In the direction of the executive branch, the Senator fired back a few pointed opinions about the lack of legislative counterbalance in the Office of Fiscal and Program Review which drafts the fiscal notes, for bills like these, largely upon recommendations made by the Department.

(In this context, loyalists may recall last year's "Damon amendment" for regional school unions which came back with various indefinite but thermonuclear-sized fiscal notes.)

Sitting without cover on the unprotected side of the cricket pitch, Jim Rier and Dr. Silvernail fielded the outburst as best they could with Rier concluding that there must have been some sort of mis-communication during discussions with OFPR and offering to return with corrections and clarifications about the funding of the study and MEPRI.

In return, Senator Schneider was graciously contrite and the bill was tabled.

The Committee then moved on to LD 522, which seeks to establish a different legislative study group. This one is to investigate "why teachers are underpaid" and is sponsored by not only House Chair Sutherland but also several key members of the Appropriations Committee, including House Chair Representative Cain and so its prospects for funding are presumed to be relatively sunny.

Add to those endorsements the MEA's willingness to provide the study gratis three teachers and a barge-load of data and you have a pretty good idea not only how well-greased the ways are for this excursion vessel but also a fairly good idea of its itinerary and final port-of-call.

The price tag OFPR attached in the fiscal note for this study? $4500.

This contrast brightened the Committee's humor and they tabled this bill also.