Democratic viewpoints on politics, policy and activism

Private School vouchers for foster children a predictable result of SB301

Well, well, well. The front page of the Seminole Producer has an article [State-Funded Private School Vouchers Expand to Foster ChildrenOklahoma Watch report July 14, 2017] proving just what I predicted last year would happen has come to fruition. SB 301 authored by Sen. A.J. Griffin, R-Guthrie and Sen. Rob Standridge, R-Norman expand eligibility for funds to pay for private school tuition and other educational expenses to “… foster children, adopted foster children and children in custody of the Office of Juvenile Affairs. The students are eligible if they have an individualized services plan, which ALL foster children receive within 30 days of being removed from home….”

Oh, how I was attacked for saying such a far fetched thing. Ha! I could see that writing on the wall a mile away. One more reason I adamantly opposed the local charter school being approved in Seminole. I was the only HD candidate who went to the appeal hearing at the State level and spoke against the decision to overturn the local school board’s decision.

People, according to the last report of the court monitors there were almost 17,000 children in the DHS foster care system. Imagine all the money that number could drain from your local school funds. What a loss for Seminole County.

Seeing the Light at the End of the Oklahoma Budget Debacle?

If more Oklahoma Republicans can be cured of their tax increase phobia, maybe we can get back to funding critical services in this state. Some real solutions are starting to be discussed at 23rd and Lincoln. Baby steps, but still!

Arnold Hamilton is editor of The Oklahoma Observer, but he also writes a regular guest column for The Journal Record. His latest op-ed addresses the foundational problem that has decimated our state’s budget in recent years: an out of date and unfair tax code.

In “Political spin, special interest cooks and future prosperity” (Behind paywall) Hamilton commends a handful of legislators who are trying to seriously review Oklahoma’x complex (and obviously broken) tax policies, and seek out solutions.

[I]t’s both notable and laudable that senators – led by Okemah’s Roger Thompson – took the first steps toward possible overhaul of a tax system that disproportionately burdens the working class and poor and undermines core state services whose funding is over-reliant on volatile revenue sources like oil and gas.

Noting how previous attempts to raise more revenue – like Gov. Fallin’s expanded service tax idea last year – have fizzled, optimism is not easy to come by, but the dire situation Oklahoma has in seems to have “woke” some Republicans to some realities that don’t mesh well with long-standing GOP dogma.

Thompson’s three-hour hearing this week served as a primer for senators of both parties seeking to better understand Oklahoma’s revenue picture. It also signaled that the Senate’s Republican majority has taken note of Kansas’ failed “trickle down” experiment – cutting taxes do not magically generate more income.

To me, that alone is cause for some ray of hope, but it’s a long way from the interim study currently underway and a supermajority required by State Question 640 to radically reform our tax code by changing rates and thus raising income taxes on high-earning groups. That will mean more than a handful of Republicans will have to recognize that “tax reform” doesn’t always mean cutting taxes for the wealthy and making the poor and middle class pick up the slack and suffer the effects of service cuts. Because, as Hamilton notes,

what helps create sustainable, predictable revenue streams to underwrite vital public services is a fairer, more broadly applied tax code that ensures the working class and poor have more to spend, the economy’s uber stimulant.

Slowly, it appears that this — the only real alternative to our current crisis — is getting through to those who make these decisions on our behalf. Perhaps the winning streak of reality-based Democrats in several recent special elections is playing a part in the new insights by the Republican majority.

We can hope!

What seems to Hamilton – and me – to be a very sane solution that will serve to tamp down Republican politicians’ nervousness about violating the Grover Norquist rule of polcymaking, is, yes, handing the job off to a bipartisan panel, an idea proposed recently by State Treasurer Ken Miller.

Such a group could tackle comprehensive reform – everything from income tax rates to sales taxes on services to gross production and motor fuel taxes – then present a plan for an up-or-down legislative vote.

That won’t be easy (thanks, Yes on SQ640 voters!) but can perhaps cushion the political pain for members of the majority running this state.

Because some of them are coming to the light and getting introduced to reality too. Hamilton quotes Miller, who, unlike some stubborn Norquist-bamboozled state legislators, reads the state’s books: “We need to have a modernization of our tax code,” he says. “It was built for an economy that doesn’t exist anymore.”

Ya think?!

 

Weekly News Roundup

On July 14, Our Revolution Oklahoma, a chapter of the group formed by former staffers and supporters of the Bernie Sanders 2016 presidential campaign, had a well-attended organizational meeting in Moore. 80 people from across the state attended. A followup meeting will be held on August 15.

The reconvene of the Oklahoma Democratic Party on July 15 went pretty smoothly once a quorum was present. Anna Langthorn was pretty universally commended for her facilitation of the event, though, afterward, she was seeking out recommendations for orthopedic shoes.

Democratic State Representatives are being pro-active about a possible constitutional showdown over the state budget and resulting special session.

Senator seeks to nail down state’s cost for defending unconstitutional laws – By Barbara Hoberock, Tulsa World, July 23 2017

A new study shows that Oklahoma is dead last in funding for higher education. Add that to the deepest cuts to K-12 public education in the country. Isn’t full Republican control of Oklahoma government great?

Tom Guild, candidate for OK-5, did a 2.5 hour AMA on Reddit.

Meanwhile, Kendra Horn, also running for OK-5, was interviewed by Red Dirt Report‘s Chelsea Copeland.

Most Republicans hold negative view of higher ed  by Ben Felder, published in the Oklahoman, July 23, 2017

Oklahoma delegation in DC works to decimate federal government – DC Report column by Randy Krehbiel in Tulsa World, July 23, 2017.

USGS in Oklahoma showed how following the dots can be really frightening!

Election Board records show voter fraud rarely occurs in Oklahoma

Through an open letters request, The Frontier obtained a January letter from three Democratic Congressmen to the Oklahoma Elections Board, asking about voter fraud incidents in the state.

The result of the Election Board’s nearly three-month investigation into possible voter fraud in the 2016 general election? Nineteen possible instances of potential voting crimes, 17 of which were instances of double votes, such as when a person votes via absentee ballot, then attempts to vote in person on Election Day.

All 19 instances were forwarded to local district attorneys for potential prosecution, said Election Board spokesman Bryan Dean.

“I have no idea what the disposition (of each case) is,” Dean said. “Most of the time double voting is not prosecuted because it happened by accident and they (the DAs) don’t want to go after a little old lady who voted twice.”

The article also looks at the more recent effort by a Trump administration commission headed by Vice President Mike Pence and Kansas Attorney General Kris Kobach to investigate what they say is rampant voter fraud and other irregularities.

The commission, formally referred to as the “Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity,” had sought a bevy of information on Oklahoma voters, including full names, addresses, birth dates, political affiliations, the last four digits of each voter’s social security number, voting history beginning in 2006, felony convictions, any information about voting history in other states, military information and “overseas citizen information.”

Many states are refusing to participate, saying the effort is a veiled attempt at voter suppression and violates privacy of voters, and no state has yet found any evidence of fraud any different than the minimal levels in Oklahoma.

These Three Things for Oklahoma

Republished with permission from One World House

In conversation with hundreds of Oklahomans over the past couple of years and after years of analysis concerning systemic change in the Oklahoma context, I am convinced that Oklahoma needs three things to happen before we will be able to begin digging ourselves out of our current crisis, and these things are:

1.) the Repeal of State Question 640,

2.) the Restoration of the 7% Gross Production Tax on Oil and Gas, and

3.) the Implementation of Ranked Choice Instant Run-Off Voting. All three of these together will not fully get Oklahoma where it needs to go for the creation of a flourishing human community, but without these three things, we will remain a glaring example of what happens to our social fabric when we cut taxes for the wealthy to the detriment of the common good and encourage the economic and political hegemony of the oil and gas industry.

The repeal of Oklahoma State Question 640 would allow the Oklahoma Legislature flexibility to raise state taxes to address Oklahoma’s budget crisis. State Question 640 was passed by a vote of the people in 1992 and requires a 75% vote in both the senate and the house of representatives of the Oklahoma Legislature in order to raise taxes. The effect has been multiple tax decreases over the past 25 years, mainly for the wealthy and large corporations, and no tax increases, even in times of severe revenue failure and budget crisis. Only one other state (Arkansas) has a threshold that is this high for approving tax increases. At the very least, we need to lower the threshold for approval, if not revert back to a simple majority vote. (See https://www.facebook.com/RepealOKStateQuestion640/)

Restoration of the 7% Gross Production Tax (GPT) rate on oil and gas is needed to save our schools and save our state from its revenue failure. Oklahoma’s effective tax rate on oil and gas production is 3.2%  and is one of the lowest in the country. Restoration of the 7% rate is essential to raising teacher pay and reversing the largest decline in general state spending on public education in the entire country since 2008. Oklahoma has the lowest teacher pay in the nation, and ranks fourth lowest in the nation in per pupil spending. Our neighbor Texas, by contrast, has an effective tax  rate of 8.3%  on oil and gas production and pays its new entry-level teachers about $20,000 more than Oklahoma. Over time Oklahoma has lost billions of dollars of revenue owing to our unnecessary tax breaks for the oil and gas industry. (See https://www.facebook.com/OklahomansForRestoring7PercentGrossProductionTax/)

Ranked Choice Instant Run-Off Voting would strengthen participation in our democracy by allowing persons to vote for their candidate of choice in elections with three or more candidates without the concern that their vote would be wasted or contribute to the election of their least favorite candidates. This would allow political parties outside of the Democratic and Republican parties to gain more traction and to be taken more seriously in the political debate. It would likely also increase political participation of those citizens who do not feel represented by the two major parties. In such a system, you could give first preference to the candidate you really want elected. If he or she does not have enough votes to make the instant run-off,  your vote would go to your next preference on the ballot. (See https://www.facebook.com/RCVOklahoma/)

These three things (repeal of 640, restoration of the 7% GPT, and ranked choice voting) will at least give us a fighting chance for systemic transformation in our state, and for that very reason, those who benefit from the established environment will do almost anything to keep these three things from happening. If Oklahoma is to have a future other than becoming even more of a commodity colony than it already is, the people must take back their power through sustained participation in the political process to achieve these three things and then press on towards more systemic change for a more just, peaceful, participatory, and sustainable Oklahoma.

Once these three things happen, it will be more possible to do what is necessary to generate adequate revenue for education, infrastructure, basic services, public safety, environmental protection, healthcare (including mental healthcare), and care for the least vulnerable among us.

Once these things happen, we can begin to focus on diversifying our economy and break the dominance that the oil and gas industry has over our economic and political processes.

Once these three things happen, we can build on the increased political participation that will come when people have more political choices and are able to vote for their first choice in elections without hurting their second choice or helping their least favorite candidate. Vibrant third parties will finally be able to gain traction to allow more diverse voices in our political process.

You can see why these three things will be resisted, which is the very reason we must do all we can to begin with these three things. It is possible…

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.

Oklahoma Oil and Gas and the Charade of Greed

Reprinted with permission from One World House

Harold Hamm and Larry Nichols are desperate to keep Oklahoma’s gross production tax on oil and gas at extremely low levels because they know that if they keep it low again this year, they will likely be able to keep it low for a number of years to come.

Here’s why – They know that the Saudis are cutting back on production to stabilize and increase global oil prices. They also know that the Oklahoma Legislature they own will likely pass lessened restrictions on long lateral horizontal drilling in non-shale formations. In other words, Hamm and Nichols know that a boom is likely on the horizon, and they want to enjoy that boom with the lowest GPT possible.

They also know that with a boom on the horizon there will be an increase in drilling and production and therefore an increase in revenue coming to the state from GPT even if there is not a restoration of a higher GPT. The increase in revenue will by no means cover the budget shortfall, but it will be an increase. When this happens, Hamm and Nichols will say “See, the Oklahoma Legislature did the right thing by keeping the GPT low because it led to an increase in production and therefore an increase in revenue for the state, and they will create a bunch of fancy videos with the chamber of commerce and the Oklahoma Energy Resources Board touting the return of economic prosperity to OKC and Oklahoma and highlight oil and gas as the fuel for that prosperity.

What they won’t tell you is that the increase in drilling and production that will likely occur in the next couple of years will have almost nothing to do with a low GPT rate and will have almost everything to do with global oil and gas prices, and perhaps some to do with less strict environmental regulations that will endanger our health and the climate over the long run but make it cheaper to drill wells and transport oil and gas.

They also will not tell you that in the last boom we cut education more than any other state owing to all of the tax cuts we keep giving to the wealthy and the oil and gas companies.

The oil and gas companies will have so much extra money from the coming boom that they will be able to increase their charitable giving, which will still be a tiny fraction of what they should be paying in taxes, and they will use this tax deductible giving as free advertising to claim that they are responsible corporate citizens even though many of the agencies they donate to might not need to exist if they paid in taxes here what they have to pay in other states.

The problem is that enough people keep believing this charade of greed and will thank the oil and gas companies for leading the state from a more horrible state of hell to a less horrible state of hell, and our politicians and their oil and gas patrons will pat themselves on the back for keeping the GPT low, which will mean billions to the oil and gas companies in the years ahead while our schools, hospitals, mental healthcare, and other basic services continue to languish; and we gullible Oklahomans will likely continue to reward them for this charade.

This is why it is so critical to restore the 7% GPT now, so we can enjoy a reasonable recovery towards a more flourishing state in the years ahead. Will we have the political will to make these changes, or will it continue to be the same as it ever was?

Oh. and by the way, with higher global oil and gas prices and higher production, there will be more waste water produced; so unless we figure out a way to deal with that appropriately, get ready for some more shaking, and guess who gets to pay for the earthquake damage?!