Democratic viewpoints on politics, policy and activism

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?

#RunningForGovernorTogether2018

Reprinted with permission from One World House. `

I have tremendous respect for the three declared Democratic candidates for Governor in Oklahoma: Drew Edmondson, Scott Inman, and Connie Johnson. I wish I could vote for all three of them, and I will definitely be voting for the Democratic nominee for governor.

Given my respect for all three Democratic candidates and my awareness that none of them is what has come to be known as a typical politician, I would like to make a suggestion about how the Democratic Primary Campaign for Governor could be conducted going forward. We need Democrats to be as united as is possible when one of these three candidates wins the primary. They all have tremendous ideas and gifts to share, and I believe all three of them are running for the state, not for themselves.

Therefore, I am asking the three candidates to consider participating together in a series of town hall forums (not so much debates) as an opportunity for all three of them to hash out together the ideas that are needed for our state to move forward for all people. I am confident that these candidates can show the state that the Democratic Party is the party of vision, ideas, and pragmatism to take us in a new direction so desperately needed, and in these forums they could model what good politics is meant to be – the art of developing a good and just society in and through community.

Maybe they could even have a bus tour around the state for these forums – maybe even ride together in the same bus, seriously, working as colleagues together to help each other be the best candidate for governor, whoever may win the primary election. Maybe even have a big watch party together the night of the primary election standing side by side with whomever is given the mantle of moving to the general election and show the people of Oklahoma what politics can be when done by responsible adults. I know, it is unconventional, but I truly hope they will consider it. Our state needs something different. We need these three excellent candidates to model what collegiality and good and decent politics can do for our state. We certainly have seen what the opposite has done to our state and nation.

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.

NewsOK.com 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 NewsOK.com 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.

State Question 776: Unnecessary, Unaffordable, Uninformed

By Camille Landry for OklahomaActivist.com

sq776-ballot-lang

The ballot language for State Question 776

This is an OklahomaActivist.com original opinion piece from contributor Camille Landry. Cross posted with permission. 

camille-head-shotThe leaders who founded our nation and our state envisioned a government of laws and principles that would apply equally to everyone. They wrote a federal, then state constitutions to ensure that the most important principles of our society are clearly enshrined. The right to vote, the right to speak freely, freedom of the press, protection against unwarranted search and seizure, a prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment, and other constitutional rights form the foundation for a government of the people, by the people and for the people.

The founders took an additional step to protect democracy: they made it difficult to change our constitutions. Opinions change, society evolves, but the constitution is meant to be the solid foundation that our government of laws is built upon and was never intended to be changed without serious consideration. After all, you don’t start tearing at the foundation unless you have a good reason – and then you proceed very carefully in a well-thought out way lest the whole structure comes tumbling down.

SQ776 would enshrine the death penalty as part of Oklahoma’s constitution. The amendment would make all methods of execution constitutionally allowable, regardless of how barbaric they are, and would forbid the death penalty from being construed as “the infliction of cruel or unusual punishments.” It opens the door for beheadings, firing squads and the return of the electric chair.

SQ776 is unnecessary and would accomplish nothing. There is no compelling reason for people who are either for or against the death penalty to vote “yes” on this question. Its passage would do nothing but shout “hooray” at something that is already an established practice; it is wasteful and serves to trivialize what is literally a life-and-death issue. Continue reading

Blue Oklahoma Making Some Changes

Hi, everyone. As you can see, Blue Oklahoma has migrated to the WordPress platform and is undergoing a makeover. I’ve decided to leave the site up through the mess of all these changes for the next few days in order to continue to post. You will note, for example, I posted today on University of Oklahoma President David Boren’s sales tax proposal that would boost education funding, which I support.

Thanks for your patience during this process. You can also find my posts on Okie Funk.-Kurt Hochenauer.

P.S.: Amazingly, Blue Oklahoma still contains all of its posts dating back to 2006 under “ARCHIVES” in the right sidebar.