April 1998 // Volume 36 // Number 2 // Commentary // 2COM1

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Extension Education Opportunities with Policymakers

An opportunity exists to offer Extension programming on public policy issues for policymakers. In fact, to the extent such programming contributes to a perception of Extension's effectiveness, it may be the best way to ensure our future. Educational programs on tax and spending issues in Nebraska have been well received by members of the state legislature and county commissioners. Factors contributing to success have been objective use of tax and spending data; acknowledgement of community and individual values; and assistance in organizing budget advisory groups to plan for the future.

A.L. (Roy) Frederick
Extension Economist-Public Policy
University of Nebraska
Lincoln, Nebraska
Internet address: agec082@unlvm.unl.edu

Readers of recent issues of the Journal of Extension undoubtedly have noticed that our profession is debating several critical, overarching issues:

-- How can Cooperative Extension be more relevant and accountable?
-- Are we sufficiently scholarly?
-- Are we offering the appropriate amount of service?
-- What are our values?
-- Do we know what business we are in?

The last question is perhaps the most unsettling of all. It implies a great deal about knowing and responding to the needs of our customers. An affirmative answer to it would go a long way toward providing satisfactory responses to the other questions. Unfortunately, we may know less about our customers than we are willing to acknowledge (King, 1993).

Policymakers as Customers for Public Policy Education

Among the customers that need more attention are those that provide financial resources to Cooperative Extension: county commissioners, state legislators, and perhaps even our representatives in Congress. It's not enough to provide elected officials with an overview of programs offered to the general public. We need to offer programs that directly benefit them in their role as policymakers.

Hahn consistently has identified "government" as a key Extension audience, especially in issues-oriented public policy education (1990). To his credit, Hahn does not shy away from advocating both technical assistance and process help for such audiences. The point is that election to office does not automatically make a person all-knowing about government functions. Nor should it imply that all elected officials are well grounded in leadership styles and group dynamics.

As Extension faculty work with decision-makers in a public policy setting, our roles will be reshaped. We must be more than transfer agents of scientific findings and other useful information.

Yes, Extension professionals can still provide valuable background information to public officials. But we must always acknowledge that personal values--of both policymakers and the public--play a big role in decision-making. Because values are so important, Extension should not attempt to prescribe solutions for public problems. If we help define issues, describe potential alternative solutions and their likely consequences, and assist in developing a process for receiving public input into the decision-making process, we will have done our job.

Extension Education on Property Taxes: A Case Study

For more than three decades, Nebraskans have been concerned about high property taxes. Nebraska Cooperative Extension has responded by offering educational programming on this issue. Historically, much of the effort has been directed to helping rank-and-file voters understand a series of citizen petitions initiated to reduce dependence on property taxes. Until recently, few attempts were made to segment the Extension education "market" into various categories of users.

In early 1996, a combination of circumstances caused reevaluation of property-tax programming. One group of citizens had begun circulating a petition that would have abolished property taxes altogether. Another group's petition proposed a 30 percent reduction. Members of local governing boards (for example, school board members and county commissioners) feared that basic services would need to be cut substantially, even if the more moderate proposal was approved by voters. Meanwhile, the state legislature found itself being pressured to negotiate a middle ground between tax-cut proponents and service providers.

The Extension response was to begin work on several fronts. The Extension public policy specialist initiated a weekly newsletter on property tax issues. Though the newsletter was made available to the public through the news media, a primary audience was the Legislature itself. Recent tax law changes in other states were analyzed. Relevant articles in public finance journals were reviewed. The idea was for Extension to be a player in the evolving tax debate, albeit in a somewhat less formal way than is associated with legislative hearings.

Numerous presentations were made to Extension and other audiences during the legislative session. In several cases, the Extension policy specialist either made these presentations jointly with a member of the Legislature or at the invitation of the member. (The weekly newsletter was perhaps a subtle, but consistent, reminder that Extension had something to offer on the issue.)

One other group -- Extension faculty at the county level -- received special attention during this period. Because reduced property tax revenue could impact on local programs, Extension administration made a special effort to 1) protect funding and 2) keep faculty informed of legislative developments. Essentially, county faculty received two streams of information: One dealt with concerns of the public at large; the other, with Extension specifically.

Ultimately, the Nebraska Legislature passed legislation in 1996 that, beginning in 1998, will restrict property tax rates that may be levied by local governments -- school districts, counties, cities and miscellaneous districts. On average, these reductions will be about 15 percent. Equally important, the Legislature offered the prospect of increased state aid to local governments if they first tried to become more efficient through reorganization.

The Legislature's action opened another educational opportunity for Cooperative Education. It was based on the predicament of many local governing boards. Members felt overwhelmed by the need to plan simultaneously for reduced property tax revenue and new ways of doing business through reorganization. Cooperative Extension has responded by working directly with boards, especially county commissions.

Beginning in late 1996, the Extension focus has been on analyzing county budgets, projecting new (1998 and beyond) funding realities, and suggesting alternatives for the post-1998 period. The initial request for Cooperative Extension assistance came from a county commissioner who had had previous positive experience with Extension programs relating to community leadership. Subsequent Extension education opportunities, based to some degree on success in the first county, have evolved in an additional 20 counties.

Extension's role with county commissioners has been customized to the expressed needs of the county. Leadership for the program has come from three specialists and two local educators.

Typically, Extension's contribution begins with an analysis of how much property tax revenue will be lost under the new scheme. Then, in what can be a sensitive undertaking, each major area of spending is examined. (Costs of Cooperative Extension are included in this analysis.) Mandatory and discretionary categories of expenditures are identified. Comparisons are made with counties of similar size. Alternatives for meeting revenue shortfalls are detailed, though Cooperative Extension does not make recommendations regarding a preferred alternative.

The educational opportunity offered by Cooperative Extension frequently has been in the form of a widely publicized public meeting. County commissioners, school board members, and others participate, as does the general public. In other cases, Extension has conducted a separate work session specifically for commissioners. Though the latter sessions are officially "public meetings," typically few, if any, others have attended.

Those who participate often express fears about losing local control of public services or being forced to consolidate with other local governments. General distrust of state and federal mandates is another frequent theme. Still, the need to reduce local property taxes keeps most participants looking to the future.

In several counties, commissioners have responded favorably to a suggestion from Extension faculty that a county-wide advisory group be formed to help provide input on future budget and restructuring decisions. An Extension specialist typically assists with the organization and initial orientation of the group. Extension educators then serve as on-going coordinators for these groups, though Extension explicitly refrains from trying to influence the decisions of the group.

Conclusions and Implications

County commissioners appreciate Extension's assistance in addressing budget concerns. Both formal feedback and anecdotal evidence have been supportive. Factors that have contributed to satisfactory responses are (a) attention to local budget details in Extension workshops, that is, a recognition that no two counties have exactly the same circumstances with respect to property tax levies and spending needs; (b) an appreciation for local decision-making; (c) a recognition by Extension faculty that citizens in local communities, including county commissioners, are sometimes suspicious of state laws and regulations; (d) a sense that county Extension programs are being given the same level of introspection as other county-funded programs; and (e) Extension's assistance in organizing citizen advisory groups.

Left unsaid, but implied in some favorable responses, is the reality that Extension has been willing to become involved in controversial issues at the local level. Commissioners have sensed the mood of their constituents and know difficult decisions must be made. Making those decisions is facilitated by fact-finding and community consensus-building, both of which are well within Extension's capability.

The perception of Extension's effectiveness may be important in the future when it comes to making funding decisions. Indeed, one study from Minnesota indicated that it was the single most important factor when state legislators appropriated funds for Extension (Kabes, 1991). How better to enhance the perception of effectiveness than to provide quality programs directly to policymakers?


Hahn, A.J. (1990, Spring). Issues-Oriented Public Policy Education: A Framework for Integrating the Process. Journal of Extension, 28(1).

Kabes, D.E. (1991, Winter). Legislators' Criteria for Extension Funding. Journal of Extension, 29(4).

King, D. (1993, Fall). Facing the Image Deficit. Journal of Extension, 31(3).