Mike Ferguson may not be the smartest person in Idaho, but there's a good argument that no one is smarter. After more than a quarter of a century serving Republican and Democratic governors as Idaho's chief economist, he now leads the Idaho Center on Fiscal Policy, crafting non-partisan information and analysis.
"When I went into public service, it was an honorable thing," said Ferguson, before pausing a moment. "Not so much anymore."
When Ferguson was the state's No. 1 number cruncher, he served in a nonpolitical role.
"But I was about as close to the inner works of the political machinery as you could get," he said. "Now, I get to pick and choose the issues. I'm more or less free to make the judgment calls of what the important issues are."
And chief among those issues is funding for Idaho's K-12 public education, which Ferguson said is tied on the tracks while a "freight train" conversation speeds toward the possibility of eliminating Idaho's business personal property tax.
In a recent guest editorial (BW, Opinion, "Education by the Numbers," Dec. 26, 2012), you wrote that Idaho is spending less and less on public education. How do you track that?
The basis for that is by looking at our public schools in terms of our fiscal capacity of the state's residents. The reason I use personal income is that personal income captures real growth and inflationary growth. It goes up and goes down with the economy.
Over the 1980s and 1990s, we spent about 4.4 percent of our personal income on K-12 public education. But since 2000, we've seen a dramatic drop. And I've just updated the numbers with the executive budget, and if that's enacted, we would hit 3.4 percent, a full percentage point drop in terms of how much of our resources we're devoting to public schools.
How about spending per student?
If you look at the data from the National Center for Education Statistics, we've basically dropped to dead-last in the nation.
With a widening gap of spending per student in different Idaho school districts, has the Gem State become a system of haves and have-nots?
The short answer is yes. Where the inequity comes in is on the property tax side. For example, the McCall-Donnelly school district in the 2009-2010 school year had a property tax value per student of $4.7 million per student. Meanwhile, near Blackfoot in the Snake River School District, they have $153,000 per student in terms of market taxable value. The exact same levy, one-tenth of 1 percent, raises $4,700 per student in McCall-Donnelly while raising $153 per student in Snake River.
I've heard, time and again, school superintendents across the state say that the current level of funding is unsustainable.
We can't continue to operate at these levels. We're depleting our reserves and using money put aside for emergencies to pay for basic operations.
Frankly, it makes no sense that we would embark on a process where we would eliminate business personal property tax and make the process for school districts, cities and counties even more difficult.
The Idaho Association of Commerce and Industry wants to see that tax go away. How much influence do they have in the Statehouse debate?
Considerable. It's going to take a miracle to stop that freight train. I think, if it's enacted, it will have an impact similar to what happened with the Students Come First laws.
Is this issue so complex that the public hasn't had ample time to consider all of the implications?
The tax commission report didn't come out until Dec. 18, 2012. It's very sobering. The impact on counties, $38.7 million; school districts, another $38 million; cities, another $33 million. There has been precious little time for people to familiarize themselves with this. I question why we're rushing headlong into further undermining our ability to fund public services when it's now evident that we're doing, at best, an extremely mediocre job and, at worst, an unconstitutional job of funding public schools.
I understand that the Idaho Center for Fiscal Policy's role is to be a clearinghouse for information and analysis, but what's your role during the legislative session?
I'm not a lobbyist. If a legislative committee asks me to testify, I'm more than happy to do that, but I don't go and testify in favor of, or against, specific legislation. My role is to provide fact-based analysis into the public realm and let them deal with it as they see appropriate.
Are we going to see you in front of House and Senate committees?
I don't know. Ask a legislator.
Do you sleep any less or more during the legislative session?
I don't take any of this personally. But the stakes are really high. We're on a path that I think has enormous consequences for the future of the state.
I don't remember seeing politics and education intersecting as much as it does in the 21st century.
We're seeing a sea change, a fundamental shift in the state's level of support for education. There have been a lot of things happening that ultimately bring you back to this basic question: Are we adequately funding public education? I think the compelling evidence is that the answer is no.
How is your center funded?
Through a grant from the Northwest Area Foundation. It's a philanthropic foundation from the Great Northern Railroad. Their mission was to address issues relating to people of low or modest means to try to improve their lot in their life. Fiscal policy is a new realm for them. I look at my role in the Center as to bring a fact-based approach of having public policies that work well for everyone so that we have broadly shared prosperity.
I think more than a few people were surprised when you took this position after so many years in state government.
I had agreed with myself to continue doing my job as long as I enjoyed it. That's not to say that being the chief economist in the middle of the great recession was enjoyable. But just before I decided to retire, I thought they were paying me a pretty good salary but they weren't listening to me. I just didn't feel good about continuing to do that, and I was in a position where I could pull the plug and move on.
How long were you retired?
About nine months. There were a number of legislators, people in state agencies and myself that interviewed for the job at the Center. I have long felt that Idaho has a need for an independent voice that looks at matters of the revenue stream, tax policy and the larger fiscal policy world within state government.
Did you ever consider teaching?
After getting my bachelor's degree at Boise State, I went to the University of Oregon for my post-grad studies, and I got a view of higher ed that wasn't as nice.
Have you ever been approached to run for office?
Would you ever consider it?
No. I've been around politics for a long, long time.
But you understand the need for intelligence in politics. Is that a flat "no?"
It's a different set of skills. I think I can have as much positive impact doing this as I could in a political realm.[ Video is no longer available. ]