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.

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?!

Oklahoma: A State of Codependency

Reprinted with permission from One World House. `

For most of its existence as a state, Oklahoma has been dependent on the fossil fuel industry as the driving force of its economy. There have been ups and downs, booms and busts, but Oklahoma’s history is a history that was fueled by oil and then by both oil and natural gas. It is not surprising that in a state so dependent on oil and gas for its economic fortunes that the fossil fuel industry in Oklahoma has possessed and continues to possess tremendous political clout.

Speaking critically of the oil and gas industry or resisting its will is the closest thing to the kiss of death in Oklahoma politics. The fossil fuel industry knows this and so do the politicians. Oil and gas executives don’t try to hide this fact. They don’t have to. Historically what is good for oil and gas has been seen as what is good for Oklahoma. A politician following the will of the oil and gas industry was viewed simply as being a good Oklahoman.

Until very recently this political and economic hegemony of oil and gas went unquestioned and was both respected and feared by Republicans and Democrats alike. It is extremely difficult to succeed in Oklahoma, politically or economically, without good relations with and support from the industry that fuels the economic engines of our state. And this goes for persons in and out of political office. Speaking ill of oil and gas has been the third rail of Oklahoma politics and social survival – you just don’t go there.

Virtually no sector of Oklahoma society is untouched by the power of the fossil fuel industry, and all sectors are in some way dependent on it. Higher education, the arts, non-profit social service agencies, college and professional sports, entertainment venues, and even churches all find fiscal support from oil and gas companies, either directly or indirectly. They fund our plays, concerts, and musicals. They own and sponsor our beloved Oklahoma City Thunder basketball team. They are leading givers to charity (albeit their tax-deductible gifts are far less than the tax breaks they are given). The fossil fuel industry has established itself as the indispensable Oklahoma industry.

Oklahoma has come a long way with oil and gas, but there are significant signs that the relationship has evolved in ways that are no longer contributing to the overall flourishing of our state. The natural cycles of boom and bust are to be expected. That cannot be laid at the feet of the oil and gas companies, nor is it the underlying systemic problem of the relationship. Yet for systemic reasons, what was once an Oklahoma given, that the oil and gas industry is good for the state, has now become an extremely debatable assertion.

Perhaps the most significant problem with the industry that has made our state what it is today is that the production and use of its primary product pollutes our air and water and is quickly creating an unlivable climate. These are all assertions that the most prominent Oklahoma politicians refute because if they didn’t, they would no longer be among the most prominent Oklahoma politicians; but science is, well, science, and the evidence points strongly in the opposite direction of their denials. The recent experience of thousands of oil and gas wastewater injection induced earthquakes has made it more difficult to deny the negative environmental impacts of the industry as the Oklahoma earth literally shakes our consciousness and in some cases our conscience into new awareness.

Even if you take away most or all of the worst and very real environmental problems of oil and gas, there remain systemic factors in the state’s relationship to fossil fuel that are contributing to a less healthy relationship than what was experienced in the past. One of these factors is the importance of economic diversification. We have become so dependent on oil and gas that we fail time and time again to adequately diversify our economy to weather the times of bust in the boom/bust cycle. During every bust we promise ourselves that we will diversity, but when boom times come, we seem to contract a statewide collective amnesia.

Other forms of energy are becoming highly competitive with fossil fuel, and instead of embracing a multi-faceted energy economy with a broad mix of renewable energy sources, the fossil fuel industry uses its political clout to protect its interests over its competitors. This has played out in this year’s Oklahoma legislative session as incentives for renewable energy have been cut and electric cars taxed while Oklahoma Legislature Republicans seem resolute to keep hundreds of millions of dollars of annual tax breaks in place for oil and gas.

Fossil fuel executives lament that the industry is providing approximately 25% of the state government’s revenue, but what can we expect when we continue to fail to diversify? It should also be noted that we have made significant cuts to the budget over the past few years, so 25% today is less actual money than it was before the latest bust, and the state was already making budget cuts even during the boom cycle owing to a series of tax cuts, especially for the most wealthy and the fossil fuel industry. Compared to our peer oil and gas states, the fossil fuel industry in Oklahoma enjoys the lowest tax burden, with an effective gross production tax (GPT) rate of 3.2%. Our neighbor Texas, by contrast, has an effective rate of 8.3%

Faced with public pressure to restore the gross production tax rate to 7%, oil and gas executives and lobbyists argue that this will have a significant negative effect on oil and gas production in Oklahoma even though the rate will still be lower than most other states. However, a small number of vocal leaders in the industry, like George Kaiser and Dewey Bartlett Jr., are in favor of an increase in the rate and argue that a return to a 7% GPT will have a negligible impact on production, but it will have a significant positive impact on the state’s budget.

But most fossil fuel industry leaders want even more profit, and they are using their considerable political clout to pressure the politicians they have supported financially through the years for such a time as this. Schools are closing and moving more and more to 4-day school weeks across the state, teachers are paid abysmally and are leaving to other states where they can get paid $20,000 or more per year than in Oklahoma, hospitals are closing, mental health care is grossly underfunded, persons with special needs go underserved, and our incarceration rates are at record highs. Our state is failing, and as a third generation Oklahoman, I can already see my teenage daughters eying more flourishing communities beyond our state lines. Many people, especially young people, want out, and who can blame them? In the mean time, Oklahoma oil man Harold Hamm, the 32nd richest person in the United States and 87th richest person in the world, with a wealth estimated at $12.3 billion, is arguing that it would be “unconscionable” to raise GPT rates. The evidence of revenue failure in our state, I think, shows that it would be unconscionable not to raise them.

Oklahoma is experiencing a life threatening level of codependency on the oil and gas industry as the industry acts out its addiction to political and economic power at the expense of the overall health of the Oklahoma family and the well-being of our human and ecological communities. We have become a state of codependency, and any time we strive for more autonomy and independence from the fossil fuel industry or just simply ask oil and gas to pay its fair share, we are warned that disaster awaits us if we don’t stay the course, if we don’t stay in line.

What would we do without oil and gas, without the charitable giving, without the plays, without the concerts, without our beloved OKC Thunder? Just look at the majestic Devon Tower! See how far we have come! We are warned that we have to keep things just as they are, or we just won’t be able to make it. Yet behind the shiny tower, the professional sports, and the arts and entertainment (all of which are good within a flourishing community), we see a state that is languishing, a state that is failing, and a state that is codependent on the industry that may have made the state what it is, but is now keeping the state from becoming what it can be, both now and in the future.

The first step to recovery is to admit to one another that we have a problem. Without this first step, be prepared to remain high on the lists we don’t want to be high on and low on the lists we don’t want to be low on. Those lists are abstractions, but they represent real suffering of our neighbors and friends, suffering that will continue unless we break our current state of codependency.

Let’s come together as Oklahomans and take this step of recovery towards a more flourishing state, and our first step includes demanding that members of the Oklahoma Legislature restore the 7% gross production tax on oil and gas to save our state. Oil and gas companies won’t like that, but they do not own us. Healthy states and healthy people are not owned by anyone.

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.