Bey-Ling Sha is president of the Language Academy Parent Teacher Student Association. She is in Sacramento lobbying lawmakers on education this week. The views expressed here are her own, not those of her school or parent group. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or just post a comment on the blog.
People in Washington, D.C., know that Capitol Hill is usually just called The Hill. People in San Diego should know that our state capitol building could be called The Hills. And yes, I’m referencing MTV’s “reality drama” show. (For those of us too old to be watching The Hills, think Beverly Hills 90210 — the original version).
I’m talking about drama, cliques, rivalries, popularity contests — and I’m not even in SoCal!
I’m in Sacramento with other parent leaders to lobby lawmakers about education funding. The legislative process is a dramatic story, full of tension and heartbreak: The governor proposes a budget. Some lawmakers offer changes to the budget. Changes have to be voted on in both the assembly and the senate. Eventually, they vote on the changed budget.
In between votes, the lawmakers “caucus” (read: meet in their cliques, a.k.a., political parties). Each clique discusses where members stand on various issues and how members should vote. And the rivalries aren’t just partisan; they can be between members of the assembly and those of the senate. Through it all, lawmakers must consider the needs of their constituents, the positions of their caucus, the impact of their decisions and the challenges of their own political situation.
This is where popularity comes in. How does a lawmaker get popular these days? In meeting after meeting, in both Republican and Democrat offices, we PTA parents hear that the way to be popular (read: re-elected) is to have a firm position offering a simple stand on complicated issues. For example, “I oppose new taxes” or “I oppose spending cuts.” Lawmakers who compromise on issues by working across cliques often end up punished (read: not re-elected).
Of course, there are always courageous exceptions, like Nathan Fletcher and Marty Block in their joint support of a proposed law that would help keep class sizes lower and bring $20 million back to San Diego Unified schools over three years.
What San Diegans don’t seem to realize is that the drama in Sacramento is obfuscating the reality of the budget situation. For example, because San Diego Unified doesn’t get enough money from the state in time to cover its $1.3 billion budget, the district must take out short-term loans to cover its cash-flow problem. It’s like borrowing some money from your mother so you can pay this month’s rent, and then paying her back later when you get your paycheck.
But banks are not your mother. For the $180 million that San Diego Unified borrows in “bridge financing” each year, the district is charged $3.5 million in interest. Ummm, I think our schools could do better things with $3.5 million than pay interest to a bank!
How can Sacramento help us in this reality show? Well, lawmakers could pass a budget on time. School board member Katherine Nakamura, who accompanied the San Diego PTA delegation in our legislative visits Monday, consistently made this point in lawmakers’ offices.
To pass a budget on time, lawmakers have to work together, outside their cliques, and put aside their personal popularity quests. But for that to happen, taxpayers need to focus on the budget reality and not the legislative drama. We need to stop making lawmakers popular for the wrong reasons.
Our final meeting on Monday was with state Sen. Denise Ducheny, who chairs two powerful budget committees. It felt like being called into the principal’s office after having wandered from clique to clique all afternoon. I asked her to tell us the No. 1 thing that people should understand about the budget.
Her answer? “There are no simple messages” because the issues are so complicated.
But I have a simple message for our elected representatives: I would rather vote for someone who saved millions of dollars for school children simply by doing what the law requires (pass a budget on time), than for someone who took an inflexible position on a complicated issue in hopes of being popular.
I wonder if, come November, other San Diegans will agree on this new path to popularity, or whether they’ll be too busy watching The Hills?
— BEY-LING SHA