For years, I whined on my old blog about the lazy way that most Sacramento reporters covered the state budget — specifically, all the stories that accepted the union/Democratic establishment premise that state spending had to go up 6 percent or 8 percent a year, or else spending was being “cut.” It wasn’t the George Skeltons of the world who tried to take me to the woodshed for my stupidity. It was Dan Walters, who is infinitely less predictable than Skelton or his colleague Dan Morain. He wrote a Feb. 26, 2009, column that basically said I was a dolt serving up right-wing talking points. (I can’t find it online any more, alas.)
I take the events of the past three years as vindication that my view of how budgets should be reported is in line with what the great majority of Californians believe. If the state budget is $100 billion one year, but is projected under “baseline budgeting” practices to go to $106 billion the next year, but ends up being $100 billion, no typical taxpayer or reader buys the idea that this is a $6 billion cut.
But now I hope to win on a new front: coverage of alleged teacher salary cuts. The L.A. Times is now reporting that teachers in the state’s largest school district, L.A. Unified, have agreed to take pay cuts of 5 percent.
Hey, LAT reporter Howard Blume: How about some, yunno, context?
When I looked into the conventional wisdom that San Diego Unified teachers had taken a pay cut this and last school year, I found that wasn’t true at all. Given the relative uniformity of teacher compensation practices in California, what goes for San Diego Unified probably holds for L.A. Unified. To wit:
Of the 6,000-plus teachers in San Diego Unified, here’s how many got “step” pay increases of 3.8 percent solely based on their years on the job:
In 2009/10, 4,967.
In 2010/11, 4,865.
In 2011/12, 4,163.
These raises are given automatically to teachers in San Diego Unified for 15 of their first 20 years on the job. So much for the simple narrative of pay cuts. Every year, most teachers got “step” increases.
Wait, there’s more. The pay sweeteners for graduate school coursework that even President Obama and Arne Duncan say is idiotic also saved lots of teachers from alleged 5 percent pay cuts.
In 2009/10, 971 got “column” increases. In 2010/11, 721 did. In 2011/12, 512 did.
The fact is that it’s time the media’s reporting on public employee pay finally smartened up the same way that its coverage of public employee pensions smartened up.
The public sector enjoys built-in advantages that are unimaginable in the private sector, starting with automatic raises based on years on the job — not on performance or the fiscal health of the employer.
I have no specific impression of how Howard Blume of the L.A. Times has done his job, but it would seem pretty obvious to me that the next time he writes about LAUSD pay “cuts,” he should bring up this angle.
Unless he’s just a tool like the L.A. Times big shot who adopted a Democratic consultant’s call for spending to be described as “investments.” This is an excerpt from what I wrote about Evan Halper in August 2008 on America’s Finest Blog:
A few years ago, the theories of George Lakoff, a UC Berkeley linguist, were all the rage. He argued that Democrats were then in the doldrums because they were inept at framing issues.
One of his main suggestions: Dems should describe government spending as an “investment” and spending decisions as choices on where to “invest.” This is a joke, of course, a severe and misleading twist on the traditional meaning of invest and investment. Salaries and benefits paid to government employees are not “investments.” Transfer payments to poor people are not “investments.” Given the fact that experts say there’s no correlation between school spending and student performance, it’s also absurd to call education spending an “investment.”
But all’s fair in politics, so it made sense for Dems to use this “frame” to make their case. But why would journalists — unless they also had an agenda designed to change the way voters thought about government spending?
Which brings us Los Angeles Times’ Sacramento-bureau reporter Evan Halper. Look at the shameless way he employs Lakoff’s “framing” technique in his ostensibly straight news reporting. Excerpts:
September 21, 2008: Come winter, emergency cuts will probably be needed. Proposals to invest in — or merely maintain — the state’s roads, schools and healthcare facilities will be put on the shelf again.
August 16, 2008: Some needs of government are unpredictable, and placing strict formulas on how the state spends its money could ultimately squeeze schools, healthcare services, the prison system and other government programs that polls suggest voters want the state to invest in.
August 16, 2008: Assembly Budget Committee Vice Chairman Roger Niello … defended the GOP formula, saying it allows for enough spending growth to steadily increase investments in education and healthcare.
January 11, 2008: Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s ambitious policy agenda collided with fiscal reality Thursday as he rolled out a proposed budget that threatens to unravel his investment in schools, healthcare and criminal justice programs. I could go on, but the point is made. Halper’s trying to change how people traditionally think about government spending. What’s funny is the date of his earliest use of this tactic, at least according to my Nexis search.
May 12, 2005: School groups, healthcare organizations and advocates for the poor, meanwhile, are calling for the governor to invest billions more in those areas. End excerpts.
As I wrote a few years back …
Why is this significant? That same month (May 2005), The New Republic reported … In California, where he has some of his deepest political ties, Lakoff has huddled with local Democrats numerous times. He devoted his presentation at a February retreat to offering advice on the issues that will dominate next year’s gubernatorial campaign … starting with spending and the budget. Some Dems obliged by using the “invest/investment” claptrap.
And so did Halper. Maybe the timing is a coincidence. But one way or the other, Lakoff set out in early 2005 to change how state Democrats talk about spending — and instead, his biggest California convert ended up being the nominally nonpartisan state government reporter for the state’s most influential newspaper.
Great, just great.
We need to see fiscal conservatives push back in every way possible when they see “cuts” in teacher pay written about that leave out the automatic pay raises that most teachers get year in and year out.
The pension scams have been exposed. Now it’s time for the union-driven pay scams to be exposed as well.