Democratic viewpoints on politics, policy and activism

Despite GOP Rhetoric No Raises For Oklahoma Teachers

Was the call among some Republican legislators for teacher raises just a sheer political calculation that made it seemed like they cared when they really knew an increase in pay for educators was never going to happen? It sure seems so now.

About a month ago, I wrote on Okie Funk:

The lack of an agreement on a funding plan may well mean at least some legislators want to be perceived as trying to fight for teacher raises when, in fact, they know that given the dire budget situation there’s no way any significant increase is possible.

So my earlier speculation was correct. There were no raises for teachers in the budget despite calls from Gov. Mary Fallin and House Speaker Charles McCall, both Republicans. In fact, back in April, House Republicans issued a statement that contained this gem of a quote from McCall that made it seemed like teacher raises were a foregone conclusion:

We are including in our budget proposal a line item to fund the first year of the teacher pay raise plan, just as we promised we would do. Our members heard from citizens over and over on the doorstep that a teacher pay raise was a priority of theirs, and it has been one of our top priorities for our members this entire session. The House and the Senate Appropriations Committee have both passed a bipartisan and realistic teacher pay plan that is awaiting the governor’s signature, and the House intends to fund the raise in our budget and send it to the Senate.

Well, that didn’t work out, did it? The lack of any raises for teachers in the budget is a real tragedy for Oklahoma. Teacher pay here ranks 48th in the nation, and teachers are leaving Oklahoma for other states that pay more and offer better benefits. Class sizes are growing, some schools have gone to a four-day week schedule and the state still has a college graduation rate that is significantly lower than the national average. Oh yeah, higher education funding was cut this coming fiscal year by 6.1 percent. Last year, it was cut by 16 percent.

The lack of investment in education here is not a byproduct of the fracking bust and low oil prices. It’s an ongoing Republican strategy to starve schools of needed funding and then claim them “failures.” All the Republican rhetoric about teacher raises this legislative session was political calculation. I would even argue that the Republican base in Oklahoma really doesn’t care all that much about teacher raises.

Sure some Republicans care, and Democrats are decisively in favor of teacher raises and have given legislators some heat on the issue, but until state starts voting to diminish the GOP-majority in a significant manner, nothing is going to happen to improve education funding in Oklahoma.

It may seem too obvious to state at this point, but here it is: The current Republican strategy on the national and state level is to decrease public school funding and to privatize educational systems. There’s no getting around the fact that this a partisan issue. Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be a breaking point for a voter turnaround right now in Oklahoma.

I hate to state the bad news, but everyone should expect more cuts to education funding this coming year and cuts to most state agencies as the state struggles with likely revenue failures.

College Staff Vital To Higher Education Mission

Lost in the most recent asinine Oklahoma spectacle over undocumented students was part of an ultra-conservative legislative group’s proposal that would cut non-instructional jobs at the state’s universities and colleges in an effort to save $328 million.

State Rep. Mike Ritze (R-Broken Arrow), who seemed to indicate he was speaking for the group, didn’t note how many “non-essential, non-instructional” employees all that money would add up to, but I think it’s safe to say hundreds if not thousands of people would lose their jobs under the proposal.

It’s a terrible proposal that, if enacted, would seriously devastate college and universities and harm the lives of those people who lose their jobs as well as students, but it was overshadowed in the media by Ritze’s proposal that the state could save $60 million by identifying non-documented students in public schools and turning them over to federal authorities to have them deported.

Other members of the group, Republican Reform Caucus, disavowed Ritze’s deportation proposal, which is unconstitutional and, well, just basically cruel and abusive, but by then Oklahoma had to endure another national media spectacle as news outlets from throughout the country reported the news.

Even in the Trump era there are plenty enough people who think the idea of deporting children and denying them an education is appalling. Even in Oklahoma, the idea was greeted by at least some leading Republicans—Gov. Mary Fallin, for example—as a non-starter. Ritze, who started the entire Ten Commandments monument controversy at the Capitol a while back, has been part of an Okie spectacle before so this is nothing new to him.

So we maybe could have just moved on from the media fiasco after that, as we always do, except for the proposal to cut $328 million from higher education. As you might recall, the legislature and Fallin cut funding to higher education by 16 percent last fiscal year. Although it’s unlikely the group’s proposal to cut that many higher education employees will survive intact, I do think it’s an indication that college and universities can expect another major cut.

The state is facing a $878 million budget shortfall for next fiscal year, but the larger issue is Oklahoma faces a huge budget structural problem, which short-term fixes through cuts or minor revenue increases can’t solve.

I think a case in point of the structural problem would be this proposal to cut hundreds of college and university staffers, who support instructional staff. College staff, from IT specialists to advisors to administrators, do important, meaningful work. What would happen under this doomsday scenario is that instructors would then have to assume much of the staff work, taking their attention away from the classroom and research.That, in turn, would harm students, who pay tuition to attend college.

My point is that the state leaders can’t just lay off hundreds of state workers in higher education and expect there to be no impact on the quality of education or the number of college graduates in the state. Oklahoma, as we all know, lags behind the national average in college graduates. This proposal, or any proposal that significantly cuts higher education, is not feasible for the basic sustainability of our colleges and universities.

More importantly, what would happen next year when there’s nothing left to cut?

Trump Fires Comey In Attempt To End Russian Collusion Investigation

In the media storm following President Donald Trump’s firing of FBI Director James Comey it’s important to shut out the noise and simplify what just happened.

Let’s be clear that an American president whose administration is under investigation for colluding with a traditionally hostile government to win the presidency has fired the head investigator in an obvious attempt to make it all go away.

It’s fine to make the historical comparisons with the late President Richard Nixon and call it Nixonian just as it’s normal to roll your eyes at the talking heads on Fox News when they claim that now, finally, we can get an investigation into—can you believe this?—former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s emails. We can continue to demand an independent prosecutor take over the investigation. But these points obfuscate and blur the terrible reality of what just immediately happened.

What just happened is not normal in a functioning democracy. What happened is an example of authoritarianism, an action of a despot mocking democratic structures and the underlying frame of democracy. The action, and make no mistake about this, is obviously an attempt to hide the Trump team’s alleged collusion with Russia in whatever form to win the presidency despite what the tweets and spin offer up. It’s ridiculously obvious. Any media outlet that doesn’t say this in some version should not be trusted.

What all this means once we cut through the chatter is that we’re now at a dangerous moment in our nation’s history in which democracy is failing if it already hasn’t failed. Can it be reversed or restored? I wish I could be more positive about it but it will be difficult given the great ideological divide among Americans and Trump’s autocratic self, an intuitive component of his personality.

Republicans will try to stop any efforts to establish an independent investigation of team Trump’s ties to Russia, and it’s anyone’s guess where the country might be situated politically under Trump by the time of the 2018 midterm elections, a progressive panacea or distant hope that might not develop at all.

We can lament this on the larger scale, in the historical sense, of course, but we can’t become paralyzed. We must continue to resist the ongoing attack on democracy in widespread protest.

AHCA Is An Immoral Disaster

How can you call it a “health care plan” when it would deny millions of people insurance and raise medical costs for everyone else?

The American Health Care Act, passed by Republicans in the House last week, is inhumane, an abomination, heartless and a death sentence for millions of Americans. There is no language too strong to describe the cruelty of what the GOP just did. If the AHCA becomes law, it will lead to massive death and pain-filled, excruciating lives. It’s as if the GOP has voted to commit an act of war against American citizens.

It allows states, for example, to opt out of a provision in the current law that prevents insurance companies from gouging people with preexisting conditions. That’s why the “opt out” provision is in the bill. It’s there for a reason. It’s obvious millions of people will get priced out of insurance altogether.

It also slashes funding for Medicaid, leaving 14 million people without any coverage, according to earlier estimates. Oklahoma, which never accepted the federal expansion of Medicaid under the current law, would be hit hard, and even more people would go without much needed health care.

Employers insurance costs are sure to rise under this non-plan, which will be passed on to employees.

Let’s face it: (1) People will either lose their health insurance altogether (2) or pay much more for less coverage while rich people get a tax cut under the AHCA. That’s the Republican plan in all its clarity. It’s not an over-simplification. It’s not an issue of choosing one’s doctor or “freedom” of choice when it comes to treatments.

U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, a former Democratic presidential candidate, had this to say about the bill:

This is not a health care bill. This was a bill that provided $300 billion in tax breaks to the wealthiest 2 percent at a time when we already have massive income inequality in America today. What kind of health care bill are we talking about when you throw 24 million people off health insurance, substantially raised premiums for older workers, defund Planned Parenthood?

What it might well become is an issue of surviving until a real revolution occurs in this country and we finally get universal, single-payer health care.

No, the ACHA isn’t law yet because it has to go through the Senate. The pundits are speculating it won’t pass there or that the Senate will change it considerably. I’m not so sure of that. These are not normal times. Don’t count on red-state Republicans, who would suffer just like everyone else, to rise up to protect themselves and speak out against the plan.

As I’ve been arguing since the election of Donald Trump as president, showing up on the streets to protest and voting Republicans out of office are the only things that can save our democracy and now, it seems clear, save our very lives. Everyone but the extremely wealthy will suffer if the AHCA in its current form becomes law.

Oklahoma Faces Budget Problems Once Again

So here we are once again in a state budget mess as time begins to wind down in the legislative session and, faced with a $878 million budget shortfall for next fiscal year, lawmakers and stakeholders have starting offering up proposals.

On one side of the proposals, a small group of legislators and their supporters are suggesting the state raise the oil and gas production tax back to its historic level of 7 percent and increase income taxes on the wealthiest Oklahomans. This could put a dent in the shortfall

On another side, there are proposals to tax more services and raise taxes on cigarettes and fuel, which would help the financial situation somewhat and could lead to teacher raises but would hardly solve the problem. Some people see these as regressive taxes, as well, because people with less income pay more of a percentage of their income for the essentials of life. One can argue whether cigarettes are “essential,” of course.

Then there’s The Oklahoman editorial board, which recently warned “ . . . if lawmakers raise taxes on oil and gas production and cause curtailment of drilling, they could quickly turn the current state recovery back into a recession.”

In the end, funding cuts seem to be a given once again this coming year.

So we’re stuck in a dire situation. Oklahoma, it has been noted repeatedly, has cut education the most on a percentage basis than any other state since 2008. Teachers haven’t had an across-the-board raise in years, and many are flocking to other states for better pay and support.

Virtually all areas of state government have been slashed financially in recent years as the hydraulic fracturing boom evaporated because of the world oil glut and because of tax breaks for energy companies and recent income tax cuts that primarily benefited wealthy people. The Oklahoman notes, “Energy production is a foundational element of Oklahoma’s economy,” but, well, that’s both the point and the problem.

As I’ve written here before, Oklahoma needs structural change in its economy and its tax revenue streams. What if peak oil demand and the creation of more renewable energy means Oklahoma won’t ever again enjoy the real “boom” side of the boom and bust cycles of the fossil fuel industry? That’s a possibility.

Oklahoma does have plenty of land, electricity and a decent location with two major Interstate highways running through it. It makes it ideal for growth in technology companies and tech-related businesses, but how can that happen without a more educated workforce?

How do you get an educated workforce after draconian cuts to education at all levels, which includes a16 percent funding cut to higher education last year.

Where Is The Plan To Fund Oklahoma Teacher Raises?

Legislators have apparently yet to come to an agreement on how they plan to fund proposed teacher raises and with their session scheduled to end in about a month that’s not an encouraging sign. reported that the Oklahoma Senate has not scheduled a hearing on a proposed House bill that would raise teacher salaries by $6,000 spread out over three years. This means it missed a Thursday deadline, although by rule it could still be worked out by the Joint Committee on Appropriations and Budget, according to the article.

The Oklahoma Legislature, at least in recent years, has been noted for bringing up companion legislation and passing budget deals at the very end of the session, which is a practice that sometimes gives little time for public input on crucial matters impacting the state.

The teacher pay raise, which is a crucial matter given that some teachers here are flocking to other states for better salaries, has been endorsed by a number of Republicans in the GOP-dominated legislature and Gov. Mary Fallin. The sticking point, of course, is that the state faces an $878 million budget shortfall for next fiscal year. How will the raises be funded?

The lack of an agreement on a funding plan may well mean at least some legislators want to be perceived as trying to fight for teacher raises when, in fact, they know that given the dire budget situation there’s no way any significant increase is possible.They want to have it both ways. Even a nominal raise would help, but committing the state to a three-year, $6,000 teacher pay increase without significant tax hikes or additional revenue streams would mean drastic cuts elsewhere in the budget.

Gov. Fallin has suggested the state start taxing a list of services, which has been met with mixed approval. There is a proposal to raise taxes on cigarettes by $1.50 a pack. The Democrats in the legislature have suggested raising taxes on higher incomes and restoring the overall oil and gas production tax to 7 percent. There’s still no real agreement on these issues.

Is it possible that education will face cuts again and teachers will go without raises? It could happen.

Got A Light To Help The State Budget? Increasing Cigarette Tax Under Consideration Again

I don’t necessarily see anything wrong about raising the state’s cigarette tax by $1.50 a pack, but the legislative effort to pass it again shows how Oklahoma is still dependent on small fixes to help shore up its budget.

The proposed tax increase would generate around $184 million the first year in a budget of approximately $7 billion, and some $50 million of that would go to the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services, which is a good thing. With additional matching federal funding for health programs the amount of money the tax would generate has the potential to increase incrementally.

The problem though is that part of the mission of the tax is to get people to stop smoking so, if that happened, fewer smokers would mean declining revenue. It’s a tax that seeks its own demise.

In addition, those of us that don’t smoke won’t contribute at all, and smokers would pay a steeper price for their habit. The tax is regressive in that lower-income people, if they smoke, spend more of a percentage proportion of their money for cigarettes. I understand why smokers would oppose the cigarette tax and feel singled out, but the evidence is clear that long-term smoking can and does lead to severe illnesses, such as cancer and emphysema. The nicotine contained in cigarettes is also a highly addictive drug, and it’s difficult to quit. The tax is regressive, but it’s also a public health issue in terms of the overall medical costs to our society.

So it’s a debatable issue with no real answer. Do people have the right to smoke? Of course. But how much of that right infringes on other people in terms of its health costs to our society? This question will never be resolved to everyone’s satisfaction, and we know people will continue to smoke in the foreseeable future.

The state faces a $878 million shortfall for next fiscal year. Education funding is at dismal levels, and teacher pay here is ranked 49th in the nation, pushing some educators to leave the state for increased salaries. The budgets of state agencies have been sliced because of the state’s recent budget problems caused by an oil slump and relatively recent enacted income tax cuts and tax credits for the energy industry.

As I wrote earlier, the state budget faces structural financial change. What if we’ve experienced the last true fossil fuel boom in Oklahoma? Revenues from production taxes—taxes that have been cut recently—and income taxes paid by oilfield workers have always driven the economy and the state budget to an proportional extent in Oklahoma. What do we do now besides finding small revenue streams like the cigarette tax to help balance the budget? What happens when there are no more streams to find.