Yesterday, the Missoulian ran a bizarre opinion from George Ochenski, in which he asserted that the Helena School Bond and Governor Bullock’s infrastructure bill failed because “70 million members of the Baby Boom generation are retiring at the rate of 10,000 a day, which comes to 416 people every hour who go from being working revenue generators to living on fixed incomes, mostly Social Security.”
There are many reasons to explain why the Helena bond failed—and those who argued for and against its passage each offered compelling arguments that clearly swayed some voters. But to suggest that defunding our schools and the infrastructure of our state are somehow justified because the Baby Boomers don’t want to pay for it is no justification at all—and would represent a sad reflection of a generation content to have benefited from the largest amount of government assistance in history without offering to pay back their debt to the future.
Ochenski’s dissmisal of the need for the bond demonstrates how little he understood what was at stake. He writes, “bonds are largely designed to fulfill whatever “vision” governments or school boards think are necessary. That many of those “visions” are a lot more about wants than actual needs is not unusual.”
I’m not sure how Mr. Ochenski defines needs, but while one could certainly have opposed the Helena bond on the grounds that there was a problem with the proposal, it’s hard to deny that the improvements envisioned largely fit in the category of “needs.” From my vantage point, it’s hard to argue against the notion that our students need safe spaces that can accommodate their educations, that students with disabilities need to be provided adequate, humane facilities, and that our schools, many of them over forty years old, absolutely need significant repair to keep in operation. It’s understandable that many opposed the bond, but to blithely dismiss the serious infrastructure needs of our schools as unnecessary can only come from the privileged perch of someone who probably got to experience early education in facilities that were adequately funded, in schools that were not literally crumbling beneath him.
By the way, the unmanageable burden that the Helena bond would have imposed on taxpayers was less than $6.00/month for a home with a taxable value of $100,000.
This line about profligate government spending isn’t new from Ochenski, who wrote almost exactly the same argument in the Helena Vigilante last March, bemoaning the plight of aging Boomers who worked in state government and will have to make due on less.
Ochenski’s argument that we need to rein in spending on schools for the sake of his generation also conveniently ignores that our schools, largely built to educate his generation, are in a national state of crisis, as the American Society of Civil Engineers notes:
Almost half of America’s public school buildings were built to educate the baby boomers – a generation that is now retiring from the workforce. Public school enrollment is projected to gradually increase through 2019, yet state and local school construction funding continues to decline. National spending on school construction has diminished to approximately $10 billion in 2012, about half the level spent prior to the recession, while the condition of school facilities continues to be a significant concern for communities. Experts now estimate the investment needed to modernize and maintain our nation’s school facilities is at least $270 billion or more.
Perhaps this was not the right bond to do it, but there is no question that the Helena schools need signficant investment in our buildings to improve the educational outcomes for our children, just as there is no reasonable argument against the fact that the Legislature did real harm to Montana when its extremists obstinately refused to pay for needed infrastructure with bonds.
It’s especially galling to hear Ochenski mouthing the increasingly common line from some members of the Boomer generation: that we just need to cut back spending now that his generation is retiring. You’ll hear them argue that, back in their day, students worked their way through college without acknowledgement that tuition was far more subsidized when they attended, and that we need to cut social spending without acknowledgement that they don’t believe the programs that benefit them should be cut.
For members of the Baby Boomer generation, a group that benefited from the combination of the lowest tax rates and highest rates of government expenditure in the 20th century, a group that was handed unparalleled economic opportunity and educational access, to argue against investing in this generation of kids would be more than hypocrisy; it would represent unparalleled generational selfishness in American history.
Fortunately, Ochenski is wrong about one last thing: most of the members of the Baby Boom generation in Helena don’t share his selfish worldview. Though they may disagree about what bond we should have, there’s broad agreement that just as our nation once did, we need to invest in our children and our roads, our schools and our bridges. They know that the real drivers of the American economy and individual happiness are both found in providing a foundation for success for all of our kids. And I’ve got faith that the people of Helena will find a way to do just that.