Putting names and faces to numbers and acronyms

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Posted 12/13/16 (Tue)

Passing Dreams
By Steve Andrist

Anyone with any sense of reality knew the other shoe was about to drop.
For more than six years North Dakota has been basking in the riches of a revenue windfall, and taking advantage by spending record sums of the largesse on public programs and projects.
We got a lot done over the course of those six years, from new roads and bridges to a new medical school and much more.
Then plummeting oil prices, with an assist from depressed farm commodities prices, brought it to a screeching halt. 
Last week Gov. Jack Dalrymple, in the last budget address of his governorship, gave legs to the other shoe.
State spending, he proposed, should revert back to the pre-boom level.
Among other things, he said that could be accomplished by eliminating 583 FTEs.
An FTE is a “full time equivalent.” In other words, a person who is about to lose his/her job.
It’s nothing new for the world of government employment. In truth, it has to happen. You can’t spend money you don’t have.
But it’s thought-provoking to convert numbers and acronyms to names and faces, more so when the names and faces are familiar.
That concept became eminently clear on a personal level Wednesday when Dalrymple, without fanfare or detail, revealed that his executive budget directs all tobacco prevention programming to the Department of Health.
For me, the headline from that statement was pretty clear: “Governor proposes to cut my wife’s job.”
That’s not a number or an acronym, it’s a person whose pay and benefits will not longer be available to help sustain our family.
My wife, Barbara, works for the Center for Tobacco Prevention and Control, commonly known as BreatheND.
If you dig into the weeds of the executive budget, you’ll find plans to eliminate that agency and the jobs of its 10 employees.
It’s a proposal that legislative leaders have said they support.
To be sure, these aren’t the only ones losing their jobs. While many of the 583 FTEs represent vacant positions that won’t be filled and retirees who won’t be replaced, many more are people with names and faces who are about to receive their pink slips.
There is one troubling difference, though.
BreatheND is being eliminated for political purposes, and the budget savings are a bonus. And, in a twisted stroke of irony, the FTE reduction will be more than offset with new hires who will regulate medical marijuana.
Legislators and other government officials have never liked BreatheND because it was created by initiated measure.
The voters told them they had to do something they didn’t want to do and they have never liked it.
But that’s politics and it’s fair game for legislators to eliminate an agency when they believe the money can be better spent.
The troubling part is when it becomes personal.
On many occasions BreatheND staff have been referred to by capital insiders as “tobacco Nazis,” as if their passion for their work represents some heinous act of violence and discrimination.
Right wing blogger Rob Port, a consummate name-caller, writes that lawmakers refer to them as the “Tobacco Taliban,” as if they’re torturous jihadists.
Through my rose-colored glasses, these state employees are dedicated and passionate, just what you’d want in state employees.
To opponents, they’re bureaucratic zealots.
In piling on to the legislative disdain, Port even says, “BreatheND does not exist to promote public health in North Dakota. It’s an employment program for anti-tobacco activists allowing them to enjoy cushy government jobs while funneling money to their friends in the advertising industry.”
You can’t get more personally disingenuous and hurtful than that.
It’s an attitude that seems to be increasingly pervasive in American political and social (media) life.
And it happens in part because we talk about the numbers and acronyms, while spending nary a moment looking at the names and faces.