As State Sen. Jay Emler put it during a recent interview, “Sometimes I wonder why I ever wanted this job.” The first-term legislator from the 35th District-the senator for most of Marion County until proposed new district boundaries take effect in 2004-was referring to the upcoming legislative session, which officially begins Monday.
Emler’s reticence-echoed by every state lawmaker and official we’ve talked to or heard from during the past few weeks-concerns an inevitable battle this legislative session over the state budget. A hard combination of rising expenses, particularly in state-funded medical programs, and declining revenue resulting in large part from a national economic recession, has left lawmakers the enormous task of filling a budget hole of about $426 million for the 2002 fiscal year.
Budget Director Duane Goossen says it’s no longer possible to trim enough “fat” from general government operations to offset the growing financial outflow. Hard decisions will have to be made: Either make politically volatile budget cuts or raise revenue through taxation.
Kindergarten-through-12 public education is most vulnerable to hard cuts, Goossen believes, simply because there is a dearth of alternatives to consider. This, to our mind, is unacceptable in principle. Strong public schools are the best hope for our collective future.
At the same time, it may be a healthy, though difficult, exercise to carefully scrutinize how money is being spent in public schools. USD 410 began the process last year when it appeared the district would be facing shortfalls. The cuts turned out to be unnecessary, but the process did force some reevaluation of priorities.
Do with less or pay in more. Sigh. Neither prospect is appealing or popular, as Sen. Emler is well aware. -DR