Once a Reporter, Always a Reporter

Once I was a straight reporter. Then my husband became a politician. That made me a political spouse with bad habits, some of which are exposed here. Others are located at www.VIKIVOLK.com

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Location: St. George Island, Maryland

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Sunday, May 2, 2010

Why Are We So Rude?

Last year's county budget hearing shocked me. Teachers, traditionally crying the loudest for tax hikes, were applauding the Constant Yielders.

The CY-ers are, in essence, our local version of the Tea Baggers. There are a parade of new faces over the years, but they all stand on the shoulders of a long-line of St. Mary's CY-ers entrenched long before I arrived in 1984.

Constant yield translates into a property tax mechanism that saves a homeowner of today about $170 a year. It saves a great deal more for the owners of super-duper homes, owners of multiple properties, commercial building owners and owners of large tracts of land zoned for development.

It doesn't save people who don't own a home anything at all. In fact, it can directly translate into service cuts to the poor.

So for public school teachers who depend upon taxes for their livelihood and upon the basic health and welfare standards of their community for the general well-being of their students, opposition to the Constant Yield Rate was an historic no-brainer.

So last year was weird.


So I sat before the television again this year, popcorn in lap, and was comforted in that sick-kind-of-way to see the teachers had returned to their traditional tactics. For hours they stood to ask for more money, many taking the opportunity to belittle, mock and insult the five county commissioners in charge of granting close to half of the schools' $177 million budget.

Don't get me wrong. I am certainly no foe of the mockery of public officials. It is often how I manage to sit in front of the television watching democracy unfold.

But even back when I had to attend in person I was amazed and confused by the technique at these county budget hearings. I'm sure I've more than once already quoted my mother's warning, "Honey attracts more flies than vinegar."

Well, I never much listened to my mother either.

So the insults are as traditional with county teachers as is Guerrilla Theater. This year they offered wieners in front of the school where the commissioners held the hearing. (Get it?) And they wore big carnival eye glasses to emphasize the short and long views. For me, the television audience who didn't see the wieners or the signs outside, the glasses provoked thought about the broad and narrow views.

Today I can more personally empathize with the rocks and arrows -- the spouse of a sitting commissioner, no longer a legitimate reporter -- but I confess, for as far back as when the county commissioners were my weekly fodder, I felt sorry for them at these budget hearings. No matter how short or long visioned they were -- or are, the bottom line is, at these public hearings they're simply sitting ducks. And they really don't have millions of dollars left to deal with.

It's not like stones and arrows have anything to do with the building of a public budget. And why would teachers complain of unpaid overtime to lower-paid sitting ducks who are similarly belittled at least monthly over matters equally beyond their control? It just doesn't make good sense if your goal is relief. Surely a teacher grasps the irony of the bumper sticker slogan, "The floggings will continue until morale improves." You do, don't you?

Then again, it's not like comments at budget hearings ever addressed the economics of running a school system, actual personnel and service losses associated with the constant yield tax rate or really anything other than each speaker's personal priority.
Budget hearings are more similar to petitioners coming before the king than the art of balancing a budget.

The months leading up to the hearing are when the dollar by dollar budgeting is largely completed for the pragmatic reason of needing a budget to have a hearing about. This budget document is typically crafted in cooperation and collusion with some of the very people who then stand red-faced and arms waving before the sitting ducks and spew their ire to -- nowadays -- the camera.

Sitting back with popcorn and history, it is great theater. In that sick-kind-of-way.

But to put it on TV next to all the other reality shows makes it much less humorous and much more obvious that it isn't confined to St. Mary's Constant Yielders or Constant Yellers. This is the style of contemporary public discourse. It fills every level of governing and of society.

Even our organizations form around central themes of common enemies: Cancer, the Republicans, the Democrats, Reproductive Rights, Women, Men. Even churches and parishes are selected by common enemy themes. And teachers have long complained that attitudes of disrespect and exclusion fill their classrooms.

I've got to think that turning St. Mary's County Budget Hearings into back-biting and finger-pointing reality television isn't helping.

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