What State Are We In?

An alternative preview to the State of the State

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On Thursday, Jan. 6, a journalistic tradition will get under way in Room W-53 of the Idaho State Capitol. The Associated Press will put out a spread of pastries and beverages as Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter leads a parade of power. Otter, House Speaker Lawerence Denney, Senate President Pro Tem Brent Hill and a half-dozen more will begin a carousel of spin, each telling reporters what to expect from the 2011 Idaho Legislature.

While munching away on croissants and muffins, reporters will be spoon-fed quotes and anecdotes from the men and women who also determine how much, or how little, many Idaho families may eat in the next year. The very basics of health and safety hang in the balance: taxes on groceries, health care for the infirm, dwindling funds for textbooks, a strained correction system, and fewer dollars for our natural resources. Far from Room W-53, Idahoans from every walk of life anxiously await a State of the State and a legislative session that will either sustain or weaken already-fragile infrastructures.

In anticipation of Otter's Monday, Jan. 10, State of the State Address, BW chose not to turn to the usual collection of politicians for analysis but rather to citizens, who have much to gain or lose when lawmakers consider the fates of Health and Welfare, higher education, K-12 public education and our environment.

The Caregiver

Like a lot of CEOs, Sabrina Swope watches budgets.

But she was quick to say that she needs to put people before profits--her heart gives her no choice. She worries that a call for deeper state budget cuts could leave Idaho's most vulnerable citizens with even less support.

"My hypothesis is that hospitalizations are going to increase, which are more expensive than community services," Swope said. "This is going to hurt a lot of people because they are not going to get that wrap-around care."

As president and CEO of Affinity Inc., Swope and her staff of social workers, psychologists and nurses work to keep people with mental illness out of hospitals and prisons by providing disease management and coping skills through psychosocial rehabilitation and other services.

"They have the right to live in our communities. Some of them are just going to need support to do it," Swope said.

But deep budget cuts in 2010 made it harder for Swope and her colleagues to serve clients battling mental disabilities. Last year's cuts to Medicaid slashed hours for mental health services. And as Swope sees it, more pieces have yet to fall.

"The clients are the ones that are really going to suffer," Swope said.

The Medicaid cuts forced mental-health providers to scale back or eliminate services such as psychosocial rehabilitation. But rather than lay off staff, shutter programs or close doors, Swope kept providing the care--free of charge.

"Affinity would just eat those hours up because you can't just leave them," Swope said.

"Our philosophy is that we don't turn anyone away ... We just stop billing, which is a double-edged sword. We need to be fiscally responsible to keep the doors open."

But Swope remains cautiously optimistic that the budget of 2011 spares mental-health services.

"My hope is that they don't further cut these folks because they're already a devalued, underserved population ... I have faith in our Legislature and our governor that someone, somewhere along the way is going to stop and ask, 'What is this cut really going to do to these folks?'"

The Professor

"When you go to university, you expect to have top-notch professors around," said Alex Neiwirth of the Idaho Association of Government Employees. "I think a lot of students are disappointed to find that graduate students are teaching them that may not have had any experience or training before."

Last year, the Idaho Legislature approved a 7.8 percent cut to funding for higher education. To make up for that loss of funding, Idaho school officials and universities approved a 9.8 increase in tuition fees.

John Freemuth, professor of political science and public policy at Boise State and senior fellow at the Andrus Center for Public Policy, is outspoken about the national state of higher education.

"We're raising tuition and fees and dumping it on the kids' backs," said Freemuth.

With the economic downturn, more people are going back to school. In September 2010, Boise State saw a 5.6 percent increase in enrollment. Lewis-Clark State College saw an 8.1 percent increase. But bigger isn't always better.

"There is little doubt that we are doing more with fewer resources. We have a lot more students than just a few years ago, but without a commensurate increase in professors," said Gary Moncrief with Boise State's political science department.

"I always tell my students, 'study hard and get the heck out of here,'" Moncrief added.

With defunding of higher education, teaching is becoming a difficult gig.

"It's been a continual process of erosion. It's not like cutting back and doing more with less is anything new," said Robert McCarl, former IAGE vice president and current professor of sociology at Boise State.

McCarl and Neiwirth acknowledged a new facet of the university job: chasing research funding in order to stay relevant.

"There's this trend to have universities serving the private sector as a way to find additional revenue," said Neiwirth. "The research projects they're doing aren't for pure knowledge. They're looking for applications to benefit local businesses."

It's a sign of the lengths universities are going to in order to remain accredited to offset waning financial support. College professors have to publish to remain relevant in their communities.

"If you can't play in that pond, you can't get advancement," said McCarl. "You relegate yourself to a second-class status."

The High School Teacher

Nick Parker remembers the way that a college professor was able to light a fire under him.

"He had such an amazing mind. I want to give other students what he gave me."

Today, Parker teaches global perspectives, introduction to law, U.S. history and economics at Eagle Academy.

Parker's parents were educators as well, and he remembers spending time with them during holiday and summer breaks from school.

"We had such a great family life growing up," the father of two said. "I wanted that for my family."

Although Parker enjoys the quality time he is able to spend with his family, it's now a rare perk rather than an expectation. Budget cuts have forced schools to scale back, resulting in larger class sizes, required furlough days for educators and a halt to field trips. Parker used to take students to police officer training facilities and other locations to witness law enforcement first-hand, but now there isn't enough funding for a bus.

Cutbacks have also resulted in rationed supplies.

"We have to wait until a dry-erase marker is completely dried up and absolutely cannot be read anymore before we get a new one," said Carlotta Vaughn, a student-teacher at Whittier Elementary School. "The supplies that we begin the school year with are what we have for the entire year."

Whittier is classified as a low-income school and receives assistance for its students through grants and programs such as Project School Bell. Vaughn said that some children arrive at school on the first day without anything--no paper, pencils or backpacks. Various programs and out-of-pocket contributions from dedicated teachers get children the supplies and education they need.

Parker, Vaughn and teachers across Idaho will be watching and listening closely to the governor's State of the State Address.

"Money put into education is money put into the economy," Idaho Education Association President Sherri Wood said. "I hope to hear that governmental leaders will focus on public schools and funding students' education. You can't cut the budget without affecting kids."

Parker acknowledges that the state and country have endured trying times in the past few years.

"I think our state is doing its best during the economic crisis that's going on," Parker said. "Education is the most important thing, and if kids today don't get an education, we're going to be worse off in 30 years than we are today." Wood sees the solution to a turbulent economy in students.

"The road to economic recovery is in each one of our classrooms," Wood said.

The Environmentalist

Jon Marvel is the executive director of Western Watersheds Project, an environmental advocacy group whose mission is to protect and restore watersheds and wildlife through public policy initiatives and litigation.

These days, Marvel is frustrated.

"The State of the State Address may not include anything that environmentalists in Idaho can celebrate.

"Certainly the governor will mention wolves and probably bighorn sheep along with the controversies surrounding those two species. Other than that, there might be some Environmental Protection Agency and Endangered Species Act bashing, but not much more."

Marvel expressed concern that the governor makes too much political hay out of the wolf debate.

"Gov. Otter will make demands for the delisting of wolves and perhaps grizzly bears, and I'm sure he will grandstand for the benefit of ranchers and hunters," said Marvel.

"Gov. Otter first and foremost wants to align himself politically as sympathetic to these vociferous interests," said Brian Ertz, media director of Western Watersheds Project. "Ironically, and perhaps appropriately, [Otter] now finds himself in the awkward position of aligning with some of the most vocal and hateful anti-wolf activists, many of whom are currently under investigation for poaching the very elk for which they claim to be advocating."

Marvel Ertz expects a good many of his colleagues to have a voice during the upcoming legislative session.

"Speak out, show up, agitate, have fun, call the bastards out, organize and lean extra hard when someone suggests that your effort is out of the norm--especially in Idaho," said MarvelErtz. "Environmental causes in this state do not have a willing champion in any political party. Idaho Democrats are as afraid of the word 'environmentalism' as Republicans are officially spiteful of it. Idaho's media is largely sympathetic to the powers-that-be and driven by those powers' canned talking points."

Marvel Ertz measures his political fervor with prose.

"Our academic, political and media institutions are so far beyond growing an appreciation for our state," said Marvel. "Those of us whose conviction and heart lie with the wildlife and wild landscapes have a lot of work to do."

Ertz, Marvel, Moncrief, Neiwirth, Parker, Swope and Vaughn will be busy on Jan. 10, protecting wildlife, teaching a new generation and providing services to the handicapped. But they'll be anxious to hear Otter's message. So will we all.

UPDATE:This story has been updated to correct attributions.