This is not about Florida. By way of preface there follows a passing reference to Florida, but it is awfully hard these days to discuss anything of even the slightest public interest without alluding in some way to the state now so clearly identified as the source of all social unrest and human misery.
Take the election. Please. For more than two centuries, Americans have brought about peaceful and orderly change in government with only scattered occurrences of vanishing ballot boxes or voting by the deceased. The precious right purchased with the blood of patriots is exercised every four years – at once joyously and solemnly – by as much as half of the eligible citizenry.
Then Florida weasels its way into the forefront and look what happens. State and local elections officials decide to hold an incompetence contest. Tens of thousands of voters, fully capable of blasting buried golf balls out of sand traps, inexplicably lack the strength to poke a pin all the way through a piece of paper. Meanwhile, Mexico inaugurates a new president and holds a national celebration to mark the end of 70 years of corrupt and oppressive one-party control. Canada, after decades of cultural and regional strife, has an election that goes down smoother than a midsummer Molson. Fidel Castro, who wouldn’t know a free and fair election if it bit him on the rump, snidely offers to send observers to our next election and all we can do is wince. The neighbors are making fun of the paragon of democracy and it’s all Florida’s fault.
Look at the stock market. It’s been in what analysts call a “negative growth” mode for six months, cause unknown. Suddenly, Wall Street experts who can’t predict what they’re going to have for lunch pin the rap on political uncertainty, as if the market knew all along about the Florida factor. The theory seems to be that Florida wanted to quell the influx of retirees and decided that wiping out everyone’s IRA was the way to do it.
But for real rending of the fabric of society, consider college football. A few years ago, in response to the public outcry for a true and irrefutable national champion, the NCAA did away with the traditional New Years’ bowl games and guaranteed a season-ending game between the teams ranked first and second in the leading polls. It worked quite well until this year. The University of Oklahoma cooperated fully, completing an undefeated regular season to earn the first-place ranking. Oklahoma’s OK, but the second spot is the subject of a ferocious squabble between two teams – both have one loss, one beat the other in an early season game, the other played a tougher schedule and has cooler uniforms – and the peaceful and orderly election of a national champion hangs in the balance. The two teams causing all the trouble are from the same state. Guess which one.
Enough preface. What matters here and now is that the 120th Maine Legislature is open for business. Before lawmakers’ desks get too cluttered up with the detritus of lawmaking, I’d like to draw their attention to two piles of clutter on mine.
The first is a report that got brief attention in the news last week – it would have gotten more attention, but it wasn’t specifically about Florida. It’s by an outfit called The National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education of San Jose, Calif., and it’s about how well the states get their kids ready for, and through, college. As far as Maine goes, there’s nothing terribly new – we do a pretty good job of getting them ready and an absolutely awful job of paying for them to get through.
What is new is the incredible amount of detail the report contains on exactly why not enough Maine kids go to college. Academic excellence in eighth grade on standardized tests falls to mediocrity by the 11th. The lack of honors and AP courses impedes admission to top colleges and the award of national scholarships. The deadly combination of low incomes, low state support for financial aid and fairly high tuition got Maine an “F” in affordability. To make matters even worse, the jobs Maine offers its college grads don’t pay particularly well anyway.
The problem is not at all new, but as the 120th Legislature prepares its agenda for the coming biennium and wonders why it’s the first legislature in years that won’t have a whacking huge surplus to play with, it may also wonder why the problem is still there. Which brings us to the second pile of clutter.
It’s a printout of all the bills, resolves and orders that make up the roughly 3,000 items that occupied the 119th Legislature. I’ve examined it in great detail, held it up to the light, looked for the hidden meaning in every dimple, and find little that addresses in any substantial way the issue of making college more affordable.
There was a little fussing about the use of the tax-exempt bonds the state makes available for student loans, the sale of the resulting loan portfolio to somebody in Nebraska and the lack of any credible evidence that the bonds benefited anybody but people in the student loan business. And it would be unfair to say the 119th did nothing to make higher education more affordable – by eliminating the snack tax, it did lower the cost of the chips those college kids like so much. Of course, it could be argued that the $8 million in lost revenue might have put several thousand more kids in college, but that would be nit picking.
How the 119th (and for that matter, the 118th) went through hundreds of millions in surplus without making any significant improvement in college attainment, and how the 120th got stuck with the bad report card, is baffling. There may be many reasons for this – cultural conflict, socioeconomic transmogrification, the wrenching changes brought about by globalization. Me, I’m thinking somehow, some way, it’s got to be Florida’s fault.
Bruce Kyle is the assistant editorial apge editor for the Bangor Daily News