Mourning In America

A New York Democrat on politics, journalism, and the Mets

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Thursday, June 26, 2003
Orange Alert: The Biggest Unfunded Mandate? This MSNBC piece about the debate over whether to raise the national terror alert level to orange stumbles into one of the more interesting impacts of that declaration -- a hit to state and local budgets, as officials pay overtime to cops for extra "visibility" and other security measures.

This is a very different way of looking at the alert process -- and one that, frankly, makes the entire effort look a lot less silly. The piece's main revelation is that, despite the lack of "specific and credible" evidence from terrorist "chatter" that a July 4th weekend attack is being planned, some Federal officials still want to raise the threat level, noting the commonsense reality that a terror attack that weekend would be a highly symbolic blow, and terrorists are nothing if not fascinated by symbolism.

This new way of thinking about the terror alerts is so revolutionary that the MSNBC writer doesn't really appreciate its importance: He still focuses on the alert levels as a message from the government to the general public, and discusses the counter-argument is that raising the level in the absence of specific threats would feed the "crying wolf" syndrome, in which the public discounts each warning. But after all the "false alerts" we've already had, the public already does that, and at least for New Yorkers, it doesn't take an alert to make us more vigilant than we were prior to 9/11.

However, if your audience is really the local officials who need to deploy extra security in response to the warnings (deployments that you, a bureaucrat at the Department of Homeland Security, don't have to pay for), the temptation to raise the level around any symbolic date or event would obviously be quite high. In this light, the alert system simply becomes a highly-visible method of inter-governmental communication and cooperation. It's hard to say that such a mechanism is unnecessary -- but is this the cheapest, most efficient, and most equitable way of funding these security efforts? Probably not, but we've got a long way to go before we even start in on that debate.

Redefining "Drug Money" From The Telegraph in England: "Cocaine found on nearly all euro notes"

We Don't Need No Education? Actually, you do!

In a ruling that could be hugely important to the future of New York State finances and government operations generally, the NYS Court of Appeals today ordered the "Governor" and legislature to come up with a new system for funding New York City's schools -- one that fulfills the state constitution's promise of a “basic sound education.”

Direct aid to school districts is a huge piece of the state's budget -- a $14 billion slice of the $89 billion pie. $5 billion of that flows to New York City. This money is hugely important politically, in part because education is a potent issue for candidates, but also because voters outside the state's cities vote directly on their school districts' budgets -- and the property-tax increases necessary to finance them.

Earlier this Spring, "Gov." Pataki's efforts to reduce state aid to school districts were the flashpoint that sent the Senate Republicans into the arms of Assembly Democrats for a budget compromise -- because Senate leaders like Joe Bruno recognized that upstate and suburban voters who saw huge property-tax increases on their school-budget votes would recognize the lie in Pataki's "no job-killing taxes" canard.

Now, at the very least, state lawmakers will face pressure to contribute more money to the city's schools (the case was filed on behalf of city students, so at this point it only applies to them), but it could also lead to a more fundamental overhaul of the school-funding formula, since the precedent can presumably be extended to other underperforming districts with large minority populations.

These lawsuits have been rolling across the nation, because many states' constitutions contain similar clauses, while many urban school districts feature similarly disappointing student performance. In places like Ohio and New Jersey, the additional aid has largely come in the form of capital assistance to help build new facilities at the poor districts. In Texas, it gave rise to the "Robin Hood" system, where rich districts' property-tax revenues were raided and funnelled elsewhere.

The issue has been potent elsewhere as well -- even in some states that didn't face court orders. In Michigan, Gov. John Engler radically reformed the entire system to have the state, through a sales tax, provide most of the revenue for local districts' operating budgets.

The outcome in New York probably depends on how seriously the lawmakers take the court ruling -- and how much shame they feel about the current state of school financing. The early signs are not promising, with predictions of further lawsuits as far as the eye can see.

But who knows? Maybe "Gov." Pataki will recognize that it's time to think about a legacy, and realize that reforming this major pillar of the state's finances to create a system that's fairer and more transparent (and therefore less subject to becoming a tool of political maneuvering) would be a seminal accomplishment.


Sunday, June 22, 2003
And We Thought the GOP Opposed Cloning: This was in an otherwise-formulaic piece about Republican strategizing for the 2004 election:
"I think we are in a highly competitive environment with rough parity between the parties, but we have an advantage in George W. Bush," said Ralph Reed, former Georgia GOP chairman who is expected to play a key role in Bush's reelection campaign. Reed also said, "The issue for Republicans is how do you take that advantage, which is based on a leader or a man, and institutionalize it. The way you do that is to, in effect, replicate him through other candidates."