The ‘nut graph’ you’ll never see in a state government story

Oct. 1, 2012

By Chris Reed

On Sunday, as I read iconoclastic pollster Pat Caddell‘s sharp, persuasive tirade documenting the many issues where the national media have spared the public from the details of the Obama administration’s venality and incompetence, I got to thinking about the parallels with the Sacramento media’s coverage of the state government.

What was the single fact that most explains how California works, but which has never appeared in a succinct version in a regular newspaer story or “analysis” of Sacramento? It was obvious. Here’s a one-paragraph version that should be the basis of what journos call the “nut graph” of most stories about state spending and state priorities:

“The members of the most powerful political force in state politics, the California Teachers Association and the California Federation of Teachers, get far more money from taxpayers than any other single group. The teacher unions’ power derives from the automatic dues deducted from teachers’ paychecks, meaning taxpayers directly fund the lobbying and political operations of Sacramento’s most influential entity.”

I have lived in California since 1990, and I have seen many stories that point out that the biggest chunk of the state budget — per Proposition 98 — is public education, with a minimum of roughly 40 percent. In that time, I occasionally have seen stories that focus on the fact that compensation for all school employees is by far the biggest chunk of school district budgets.

But I seriously don’t remember a mainstream newspaper story that makes the collective points in the nut graph above. Nor do I remember a story that goes into the details of the nut graph: that teacher compensation has long been at least two-thirds of total state education spending and that it now is more like 80 percent.

Nor have I seen a story that frames the battle over school spending as being almost entirely about teacher pay, or that specifically says teacher pay is the single biggest element of the state budget.

Before now, have you ever read this anywhere? I doubt it.

This tracks with the points made by Caddell about the selective obliviousness of the media. Just as with the national media’s disinterest in noting that the White House lied about a terrorist attack on the 11th anniversary of 9/11, we’re seeing the California media look at Propositions 30, 32 and 38 and not note the centrality of the teacher compensation issue.

If they did, it would be obvious that the dominant issue in state politics is teacher jobs and teacher pay.

Now here is where it gets really pathetic.

Prop. 38

Proposition 38, introduced by liberal civil rights lawyer Molly Munger, has as a central tenet that the money it raises (allegedly) couldn’t go to teacher raises. It’s one of Munger’s talking points. So a KEY PREMISE of 38 is that it will avoid teacher union avarice.

And yet this is never pointed out by the regular media in anything approaching the stark terms laid out in my nut graph above, or the more indirect ways used by Munger.

This is incredible, this avoidance. It’s not just libertarian-lite whiners like me. It’s not just small-government/good-government advocates like It’s not just the California Republican Party. Anyone who has a functioning brain has to realize what’s going on here.

But not the Sacramento media. Instead, here’s an example of the crap/pap we see. This is a short Associated Press update of a 2005 budget fight that makes my point:

August 9, 2005

Teachers, schools superintendent sue governor over school funding

By JENNIFER COLEMAN, Associated Press Writer

SACRAMENTO — California’s top school official and the state’s largest teachers union sued Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on Tuesday to restore $3.1 billion they claim is owed to public schools.

At issue is a deal school officials say was struck during a meeting with the governor in December 2003, a month after he was sworn into office.

Educators said they agreed to accept $2 billion in cuts to help the newly elected governor balance the 2004-05 state budget. To do that, lawmakers had to suspend Proposition 98, the voter-approved funding guarantee for schools.

In return, the governor promised schools would get more money if state revenues increased more than expected, said Jack O’Connell, superintendent of public instruction.

“Revenues did go up, and according to our agreement with the governor public education should have been one of the beneficiaries,” O’Connell said.

Instead, O’Connell said, schools were shorted an additional $3.1 billion over two years.

Schwarzenegger has denied there was a promise to share the excess revenue with schools. Because the funding guarantee was suspended, the schools were not entitled to a share of the billions of unanticipated income tax revenue California took in, his administration said.

In the budget approved earlier this summer, the governor used about $4 billion in unanticipated revenue to pay down some of the state’s debt, fund road improvements and reimburse cities and counties for money they lost when he repealed an increase in the vehicle license fee.

In the lawsuit, O’Connell, the California Teachers Association and some parents ask the court to find the state out of compliance with the law and state constitution.

The 2005-06 spending plan, signed by Schwarzenegger in July, invests nearly $60 billion in schools – more than half the $117.3 billion state budget.

Teacher pay

If you read that, would you have the slightest idea that this fight was almost 100 percent over teacher pay? Would you have the slightest sense of the Sacramento political dynamics it reflected? Would you have any sense of whose ox would get gored if Arnold got his way? Would you have any grasp of the real story of what this said about how Sacramento works?

No, of course you wouldn’t.

I know several reporters who cover Sacramento, and I have OK-to-good relationships with a few. But it is simply beyond my comprehension that so many of them think that it would be bad journalism to explicitly point out that teachers get more money from taxpayers than anyone else. And that these teachers’ unions use automatic paycheck deductions to massively multiply their clout.

These are objective facts, and they make the case for Proposition 32. But the next time that Associated Press or the reporters of the Sacramento Bee or the Los Angeles Times reports them, it will be the first.

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