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Edujobs numbers are questionable, but what about claims of saved cops and firefighters?

Post by Peter Callaghan / The News Tribune on Aug. 12, 2010 at 4:35 pm |
September 23, 2010 3:00 pm

In my column today I looked into the origins of the claims about the federal Education Jobs Fund.

The $10 billion appropriation will be distributed to states roughly on a per capita basis and can be used to retain existing teachers, rehire those laid off or hire new teachers. Washington will get about $206 million and U.S. Sen. Patty Murray has said it will save the jobs of 3,000 state teachers who are facing layoffs.

While the exact number is questionable, given that state school districts are not planning significant layoffs for the upcoming school year, one specific claim about the other part of the federal help is even more squishy. That’s the $16 billion to increase federal sharing of Medicaid programs, traditionally a shared state-federal responsibility.

Washington was counting on that money to keep its current state budget in balance. When it appeared that it wouldn’t be coming, Gov. Chris Gregoire began preparing to make across-the-board cuts to all state budget items in the 3-to-4 percent range.

Somehow, the political rhetoric surrounding the Medicaid match money became a debate over police and firefighters.

“No Word From Rossi If He Supports Teachers, Firefighers and Cops,” read the press release produced by the Washington State Democratic Party. According to that statement, the funding measure pushed by Murray “also provides critical FMAP funding that governors have been counting on to ensure that we don’t have to lay off cops and firefighters across the county.”

It condemned Dino Rossi, Murray’s likely November opponent, for “staying silent about an amendment that is fully paid for and will keep cops on the beat and teachers in the classroom.”

The state Democrats even quantified the number of Washington cops and firefighers threatened with unemployment. After repeating the doubtful assertion that the Edujobs portion of the measure would “ensure that almost 3,000 Washington state teachers are not laid off just weeks before children head back to school,” it said that “in total, over 6,400 Washington teacher, police officer and firefigher jobs will be saved.”

So basic math says that Democrats claim getting about $340 million in federal Medicaid money will in fact save 3,400 police and firefighter jobs in Washington state. That would require nearly every cent to go toward those jobs and none to, well, Medicaid.

Murray’s own campaign attacked Rossi for saying he would have voted against the measure (as did all but six of the Republicans currently in the U.S. Senate).

“With Washington state facing an expensive special session, layoffs of teachers, firefighters and police officers, and potential tax increases, Patty Murray went to work,” said her campaign press secretary in a press release.

Is any of this true? Well, Washington state was and is facing yet another budget crisis. Gregoire was preparing across-the-board cuts because legislative leaders had told her a special session would not have been successful in making differential cuts to different areas of spending. And she was relieved that the Medicaid money will stave off broader cuts for awhile. But no one was suggesting further tax increases, even if a special session was convened. In fact, the last thing Democrats want is someone – especially their own U.S. senator – to suggest they’d been planning more tax increases.

My column covered the fact that pending layoffs of teachers can be measured in the dozens, not the thousands. And I can’t find any significant threats by local governments to lay off cops and firefighters.

What is more troubling, however, is that I can’t find any connection between federal Medicaid money that flows to the state government and the hiring of public safety officers by local governments. Nor could I find a connection between state budget cuts and cuts to local police and fire jobs.

I asked state budget director Marty Brown about claims that the new money will save cops and firefighters.

“You haven’t heard us saying that,” he said. Which is true. Gregoire and her people have made no such claims. In her press conference Thursday, Gregoire said this about saving police and fire jobs:

“In some states that’s exactly what it will do. in this state we don”t directly fund.”

She said it might reduce cuts to state corrections officers, however.

I asked House Ways and Means Committee Chairwoman Kelli Linville, a Democrat from Bellingham. She said she wasn’t aware of any money for cops and firefighters.

Linville said she could envision a way of putting political spin on the money: It will avert state cuts and there might be some state line item that goes to local governments that might have been threatened with cuts that might have required local governments to make hard budget choices and that those choices might have implicated public safety officers. But then she said she couldn’t recall such a line item.

When I read her the statement from state Democrats, Linville laughed and said: “Obviously I didn’t get the e-mail from the state party.”

After promising to ask committee staff if there was some budget minutiae that would connect federal Medicaid funding, state budget cuts and police and fire jobs, Linville said: “I am completely befuddled.”

Certainly further cuts to state budgets would have cost state government jobs. But they were more likely to be state clerks and corrections officers and parks employees and social workers and inspectors than local cops and firefighters. Perhaps Democrats think it sounds better to voters to keep cops on the beat than bureaucrats at the desk.

UPDATE: State Democratic Party spokeswoman Anne Martens Friday acknowledged that the 6,400 jobs estimate used by the party is not realistic and apologized for using it in the press release.

“You had every right to call us out for that and I’m embarrassed about it,” she said. “I apologize and we’re going to vet everything more thoroughly from now on.”

Martens said the claim of jobs saved appears to be an extrapolation from a number used by Gregoire in June. After a conference call with some other governors about the need for $480 million in federal Medicaid money, Gregoire said the failure to get the cash could lead to state budget cuts and more layoffs. The number she used then was 6,400 state jobs. Gregoire’s budget staff said that level of job losses would come only if all of the cuts came out of employment and was meant to quantify the level of cuts, not to predict how the budget might actually be balanced.

“In June, Gregoire was hoping that $480 million in aid would come in and that’s where she got 6,400, although that version of the bill didn’t include teacher jobs,” Martens wrote. “Now Washington is getting $340 million, which still has the affect of avoiding a special session and avoiding across the board cuts. By avoiding those across the board cuts, public sector jobs including jobs like teachers, firefighters and cops will be protected.”

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