The Strib gave the governor the headline he wanted. "More School Dollars Sought," read the top of a January 14 story on Tim Pawlenty's putative budget "increase" for the state's hungry schools. Writer Norman Draper and the Strib waited until the 12th paragraph before measuring the governor's proposed 2 percent, $291 million bump against the gap of inflation.
Even then, the Strib cited the data in a partisan, he-said she-said context, quoting DFL Rep. Mindy Greiling's strictly factual claim that the Pawlenty plan likely won't compensate for the state's annual inflation rate. A credible 2.5 percent inflation rate--the DFL's estimate--would add $363.7 million to the state's current education budget, or a nearly $73 million funding shortfall.
According to the latest statistics from the U.S. Bureau of Labor, the consumer price index rose by 3.3 percent from December 2003 to December 2004--the biggest annual climb in four years. In the areas of the economy that have the most pronounced impact on school budgets, transportation (read: gasoline) and medical care (staff insurance costs), the 2004 rise in CPI was 6.5 and 4.2 percent, respectively. In other words, Pawlenty's "increase" aside, substantial education shortfalls are likely on the way.
Not so long ago, state law would have put Pawlenty's fickle commitment to state schools in a context even the Strib couldn't ignore. But back in 2002, when both Pawlenty and Roger Moe were senators running for governor, they helped pass a bill that essentially cooks the state's books. When announcing different parts of his budget, Pawlenty can now count the dollars inflation adds to revenues coming into the state's coffers while pretending inflation doesn't exist when calibrating the cost of state services.
At the start of the 2005 session some three weeks ago, Sen. Dick Cohen (DFL-St. Paul) introduced a bill that would put inflation back in the state's budget planning at both ends of the equation. Cohen originally thought that Pawlenty's stated opposition to the bill would mean a strict party-line vote in the Senate's Finance Committee last week. But after Charlie Bieleck, the Director of Budget Planning for Pawlenty's Department of Finance, put fiscal integrity over partisan politics and testified in favor of the bill, it passed out of committee by a whopping 19-2 margin.
But for now, Pawlenty--with the help of the Strib, the PiPress, and other "fair-minded" media outlets--has deftly exploited the no-inflation law to portray himself as a friend of education. The governor purposely timed his announcement on basic education aid to come well before this week's release of his full budget, when the specifics of his slash-and-burn proposals will inevitably be lumped together for easy digestion. Education beat writers might want to look at how the governor treats such programs as compensatory aid, early childhood development, special ed, and limited English proficiency. And here's a headline for editors to consider--take it free of charge: "Pawlenty's Budget Dismantles Education Services."