Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Why can?t Gov. Risch spare 10 minutes?

Commentary by Elizabeth Schwerdtle


Elizabeth Schwerdtle is a resident of Hailey.

Gov. Jim Risch is a busy man.

He hasn't even had 10 minutes in the past four months to speak with a small group of leaders of local parent groups from around the state. We wanted to tell him that we are concerned that eliminating property tax as a source of funding for schools would significantly hurt funding for public education in a few years.

We started calling in May when he was still lieutenant governor. "Call back when he's governor," his office said. So we did.

Every few weeks we'd call, and every time the response was the same: "We'll get back to you," and, "Keep trying."

We even put our request in writing. Still no reply.

Meanwhile, we noticed him issue an earnest-sounding press release announcing the opening of offices in Coeur d'Alene and Idaho Falls where citizens could "voice their comments, concerns and questions to the governor in a timely and personal manner."

"What are we?" we wondered. "Chopped liver?"

Still we kept our hopes up. We collected money to fly one of our parents to Boise from Idaho Falls should the governor's office finally call back.

As the summer wore on, we noticed that the governor's attention was focused elsewhere, particularly (exclusively you might say) on folks in Northern Idaho who were concerned about property taxes. Amazingly, he visited them "every week and sometimes more than once a week," according to The Spokesman Review, causing the state senator from Coeur d'Alene to remark to the governor: "Two more trips and you'll be able to vote in Kootenai County."

We also noticed that he found time to give the keynote speech, "Our Changing Political Landscape," at the business lobby's annual conference on July 13. And we watched six days later when the business lobby publicly returned the favor by backing the governor's plan to eliminate property tax funding of schools—a move that would save them tens of millions of dollars, despite the fact that compromising funding for Idaho public education will hurt Idaho's economy and businesses in the long run.

Finally, we read about the governor tooling around the state in his black SUV "handing out state checks to local leaders" while the television cameras rolled. Guess he's just not that impressed by our minivans, we thought.

Now that the governor has scheduled a special session for Aug. 25 to eliminate property tax as a source of funding for schools, we realize again what a very busy guy he has been this summer.

If he had stopped socializing at Tamarack Resort with the business lobbyists and visiting some folks up north so much, he might have found 10 minutes to listen to average parents like us. Considering that we represent by far his largest constituency, it would've been time well spent.

We would've told him what we've found out. For example, that other states like Michigan, which have made similar tax shifts, have seen overall funding for schools drop significantly.

And that such a radical shift in funding is fiscally irresponsible, according to research we've done in between our children's play dates. One education funding expert we contacted put it this way: "Eliminating property tax funding (of schools) is simply foolish..."

We would have told him that we are concerned that his bill will reduce local control of schools to the point where school boards are largely meaningless and parents have no real input in how their education money is spent.

Maybe 10 minutes was more than our governor wanted to spend talking about education with parents this summer. We could cut it down to nine.

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