State 'mandates' are like cockroaches: hard to kill

Newsday's editorial board frequently meets with people in public life: school superintendents, state and local elected officials, law-enforcement agents. And one question that comes up all the time is how to reduce the cost of public services.

It was an issue back when the only urgency was New York's position as No.1 or No.2 in the nation with the highest combined state and local tax burden - a "distinction" New York trades from year to year with New Jersey. Now, as the Great Recession has tightened the screws on public budgets everywhere, the question is more pointed: Which will it be, raise taxes or cut services?

Elected officials, candidates and community leaders usually don't want to choose between these unpopular alternatives. Sometimes they try a dodge: "Cut waste, fraud and abuse!" Hard to argue with that. No one ever campaigns for more inefficiency, dishonesty and corruption.

The other dodge - or at least that's how I thought of it until recently - was, "Cut unfunded mandates!"

"Mandates" come up often as the culprit forcing unnecessary costs on local governments and agencies - but ask for an example, and people have trouble responding. It's not that the problem doesn't exist; it's that it's so pervasive, and it's hard to know where to begin.

Mandates were once well-meaning state rules for how municipalities and school districts should do business. Now, the rules have hardened in concrete. They're bureaucracy; they're micromanagement. And, as of December, they're available in 40 pages of highly descriptive detail - 238 separate mandates - that a task force spent nearly a year compiling for Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo.

The report from the 2011 Mandate Relief Redesign Team lists burdensome rules and paperwork like a bundle of hard knots. Permit local governments to make discretionary purchases on public works projects up to $50,000, instead of $35,000. Reduce time-consuming requirements surrounding foster care reports, while still making them useful to the courts. Allow nursing homes to keep some records electronically.

Cuomo has highlighted mandate relief in two subsequent State of the State speeches - in 2011 and again early this month. In fact, he said pretty much the same thing both times: We need to fix the problem. He had to repeat himself because, while the redesign team did come up with a long list of mandates, it got very little relief accomplished.

Why? Well, first, the team of 27 - representing schools, municipalities, the State Legislature, business and civic organizations - had to agree on which mandates to relieve. The members came up with just $410 million worth - a small drop in a $132.5-billion state budget sea. Of that, the legislature wiped out just 22 mandates - for an estimated statewide savings this year of $125 million. State agencies can save another $40 million by rewriting regulations.

Mandate relief was supposed to ride a white horse to rescue municipalities and school districts from the tough new 2 percent cap on property tax growth they must begin living with this year; $165 million won't do it.

Rather than admitting defeat, the governor and State Legislature formed a Mandate Relief Council - 11 members, including state bureaucrats and legislators - to consider the other 216 mandates. Cause for optimism is slight.

Former Gov. David A. Paterson used to float an idea that all state rules should expire at a certain date unless legislators voted to keep them. That's drastic, but it may be New York's only real hope of undoing the knotty bureaucracy that yokes this tax burden to citizens' shoulders.

Essay first published in Newsday.

Readers respond: Students need layoff facts

Regarding the column by Anne Michaud, "Keep school budget talk out of the classroom" [Opinion, Dec. 8], I agree that children need to feel secure in school. Their focus needs to be on learning. A major part of that learning should, in my opinion, be relating knowledge to reality. What good are the three Rs if we don't see the issues that are facing us daily?

We live in a society that has a small percentage of people voting in general and school elections. This lack of response leads to lack of control over the direction our country takes and sometimes even to corruption in government.

It is imperative that our children learn to be good citizens and participate in our democracy. If this means bringing up budget concerns to students old enough to understand, then they should be mentioned. An open discussion talking about the whole process and not focusing just on layoffs, would be in order. This hopefully would bring students to begin thinking about mundane issues that our society faces on a daily basis. Opening their young minds would undoubtedly lead to a more involved electorate later on.

Steve Tuck, Huntington

If a teacher is asked a question by a student, shouldn't it be answered? I find it amusing that a person who contributes to Newsday's Opinion pages wants to now control the things we say in class. Newspaper columnists get their forum without any input from readers.

I find all the harsh rhetoric printed in the last several years about teachers "divisive, angry and unhealthy" as well. When class sizes are larger and programs are cut, remember the true culprits: the financial institutions and oil companies whose employees and owners still get record bonuses each year -- on average, more than teachers make in a year.

Rich Weeks, Middle Island

I believe that Anne Michaud completely missed the point. School budget talks allow Social Studies teachers to discuss relevant and current issues facing our communities. This issue lends itself to great discussions of limited resources, the role of the citizen in a democracy, economic choices and a whole host of other topics. This is what we call a teachable moment.

We do our students a great disservice when we try to shelter them from what is happening in the news.

Kathleen Stanley, Massapequa Park Editor's note: The writer is a high school Social Studies teacher.

As a teacher in a public high school, I feel that I need to explain why teachers sometimes discuss rules governing teacher layoffs (last in, first out) with their students. A lot of students don't understand the difference between being laid off and being fired. They just assume that when someone is excessed because of budgetary reasons, that person has been fired for cause.

I feel it is important to explain to students how tenure and seniority work. It's bad enough when colleagues are let go. I'm certainly not going to let their reputations be tarnished with misinformation.

The column is right in this sense, that younger children should not be frightened by teachers into thinking Mom and Dad hold the key to a teacher's survival, and children should therefore convince their parents to vote for the budget. It's a cheap ploy.

However, I also think that when students come to school and tell me their parents say I make too much money and have it really easy, that I should be allowed to defend my profession. I don't think it's inappropriate to discuss the realities with older students, some of whom will be able to participate in the upcoming budget votes.

Jeffrey A. Stotsky, Forest Hills

Schools challenged to cut costs, preserve quality

A couple of weeks have passed since I asked people in this space to send ideas about cutting school costs, without harming the things we all cherish -- our best teachers, high academic goals, and the extracurriculars that inspire kids to find their place in the world.

I've been overwhelmed by the response. Not so much the volume -- about 45 calls, e-mails and letters -- but by the quality. People have sent thoughtful, 4- and 5-page letters with good ideas about how to cut spending without hurting students. Former and current school superintendents, school board members, teachers and their spouses, parents -- they all want to get in on the conversation.

The response made me wonder whether, as Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo tries to target his $1.5-billion cuts to school budgets statewide this coming year, it might be worth convening a panel of informed citizens to come up with recommendations.

Here's your best advice:

--Salaries make up 60 percent to 75 percent of school spending. Freeze salaries, including the automatic yearly longevity "step" raises, and stop giving increases for extra training that, while important, adds little to classroom effectiveness -- such as courses on sexual harassment or peanut allergies.

--Give school boards more spine. Require that contract negotiations take place on a townwide, regional or statewide basis. Prohibit school districts from hiring board members' families. Stop "loading up" school boards with people who work as school administrators or teachers in neighboring districts.

--Do the math. One man wrote that his district had 6,687 students and 725 teachers. Figuring about 24 students per class . . . that leaves 446 teachers who aren't in the classroom. What are they doing, exactly? Those who wrote me seem very concerned about the large numbers of adults in schools.

--Consolidate neighborhood schools. Lawrence has closed two school buildings, netting $30 million. That money was used for maintenance to other buildings ($17 million) and a reduction in property taxes.

--Make athletics and other activities pay-to-play. Parents should pay for their kids to participate, and the group could raise money for families who can't afford it.

--Increase class sizes, especially in the upper grades. Why can't high schools use lecture halls, like colleges do? Or offer online classes?

--Charge parents whose kids are earning college credits while in high school. They would be paying the college for those credits otherwise.

--Require schools to "go green," inspiring energy savings of 10 percent or more.

--Penalize teachers who are absent a lot. (Although it's not a cost savings, another idea is to reward teachers who work in difficult school districts.)

--Put high school and college students in kindergarten and first grade classes, and give them college credit to help out.

--Consolidate school districts. This was mentioned a lot, but the political reality doesn't seem to favor it.

--Do away with universal bus service.

--Get rid of tenure.

When my family moved here in 2003, the schools were a big draw. Long Island needs to treat the quality of its schools as a treasure, even as we pare them down to a more reasonable cost.

The most depressing response when I asked for ideas about cutting school costs was this: "There have been no solutions and likely never will be any." The best? "It only takes some good ideas and those with the strength of conviction to get the job done."

So, what's it going to be, Long Island?

First published in Newsday

Where the layoff culture began

I remember when companies laid people off reluctantly, for fear the company would be branded a Bad Place to Work. The last time I remember being aware of this was in the early 1990s, when I was working as a business reporter for the L.A. Times. So, I was in the milieu. When did the culture change, so that Wall Street now frequently views layoffs as a reason to invest? Most discussions I read start with Jack Welch and his 20-year reign at General Electric (1981-2001). Tom O'Boyle accused Welch in the 1998 diatribe , "At Any Cost: Jack Welch, General Electric and the Pursuit of Profit." And so does Robert Reich, the former secretary of labor for Bill Clinton, in his latest (2007), "Supercapitalism: The Transformation of Business, Democracy, and Everyday Life."

Welch was one of the original super-downsizers. "Before Welch arrived," Reich writes, "most GE employees spent their entire careers with the company and knew they'd be looked after when they retired. Welch put an end to that." (Full disclosure: my Uncle Jack retired from GE and is somewhat in awe of Welch.)

Between 1981, when he became CEO, and 1985, Welch laid off one in four employees, or more than 100,000 in all. This earned him the nickname "Neutron Jack." Even when times were good, Reich says, Welch encouraged managers to lay off their bottom 10 percent of subordinates each year "to keep GE competitive."

Sounds more like he wanted to scare the pants off anyone working there. I'm sure they were working long hours to meet these demands -- not exactly a family friendly environment. Funny how this macho stuff all dovetails together -- be the best, work the hardest, abandon your family for all practical purposes. Did these GE employees have working spouses?? The nannies of the world really should form a union. They have two-income couples at their whim more than they know.

But back to Jack. Reich says he was simply responding to Wal-Mart-style pressures from investors. Just as Wal-Mart was able to bargain for lower prices from suppliers by attracting legions of shoppers, so have the managers of mutual funds and pension funds squeezed companies for higher profits.

Getting started

I'll never forget the first time my husband lost his job. I was eating a tuna sandwich at a diner near our home -- taking a break from what was at the time my professional occupation, writing freelance stories on my home computer. We knew that his company was downsizing -- we later learned management was preparing it for a sale. We didn't think it would be him. He had steadily increased his department's performance and had the numbers to show for it. Then he showed up at the diner in the middle of the day, and the look on his face said it all.

Our kids were preschoolers, and we were completely unprepared for what would turn out to be 20 months of job search that ended in moving from a neighborhood we loved to a new state.

The fourth time Dan lost his job, we knew what we were doing and went into what I've come to think of as layoff mode. We pulled back on contributions to our retirement and college savings. We took our girls out of expensive gymnastics lessons and signed them up for cost-effective softball. We calculated how long the severance would last (10 months, maybe more if we're careful).

We are in layoff mode as I write this. Job loss can be humiliating, and you might wonder why I would put any of this on the Internet for people to read about my family. My husband and I discussed this project at length before I began. We think that it's important for other layoff families to know that they are not alone. Silence surrounds job loss because people feel ashamed, but I think it might be time we got over that. Corporate America certainly has.

Here's a good story in today's New York Times Style section about how people are afraid to tell their neighbors they've lost their job.

Another reason I'm writing this is because I want to document what seems like a tectonic shift in my lifetime. I remember when companies worried about laying people off because they feared they would not be able to attract new employees. No longer. Any dishonor associated with firing people has all but vanished.

At first, employers displayed regret about the necessary cuts -- probably around the time the term "right-sizing" was coined -- early 1990s? Companies acted as though there was an achievable end to the layoffs, a right size they would arrive at. Now, companies seem to have few qualms about regularly cleaning house.

Finally, I see very little understanding among the uninitiated about what it means to have job loss enter your home. Maybe I haven't looked in the right places. But almost no one is making the connection between job loss and societal problems. I came across an extreme, stupid example from a blogger at a business publication, who ridiculed the idea that a layoff ruined his subject's marriage. (I'll put up the link when I find it.)

Five bucks says this guy is single.