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Okie Funk 2014 Year In Review: Part One

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(Here is the first of four posts featuring posts on Okie Funk published in 2014. Click on the title to read the entire post. It was a dismal political year for progressives in Oklahoma, but there IS hope for a coming shift and realignment in 2016, at least on the national level. As always, thanks for following this blog. Best wishes to you this holiday season.)

Failing Students, Jan. 29, 2014

Third graders in Oklahoma public schools will start getting retained this year under state law if they don’t pass a reading test.

Supporters of the 2011 Reading Sufficiency Act, which mandates retention starting this year if students fail the test, cloak it in sanctimonious language about helping children, but it’s really part of a unified conservative effort to damage the credibility of public schools.

Retaining an elementary-school student should be a holistic decision made by teachers, parents and school administrators based on a variety of factors, not just one proficiency test. Excessive, high-stakes testing in our schools is definitely political, not educational.

The test is given in April. According to a news report, 869 students in the Oklahoma City Public Schools district didn’t pass the test last year when the retention rule was not in effect. If the number is anyway close to that this year, it could create a simple logistics nightmare.

Here’s how the conservative attack on public schools works: Create universal difficult tests that don’t take into account individual student development and home life, force teachers to teach to the tests and then demean teachers and students when the results don’t meet arbitrary expectations.

The Rich Reward, Feb. 27, 2014

An analysis of Gov. Mary Fallin’s proposed income tax cut proposal shows that Oklahoma’s wealthiest households will benefit the most while 41 percent of its residents will get no benefit at all.

The overall average tax cut would be a paltry $29 while those in the top 1 percent in income would receive an average of $2,009.

The analysis, prepared by the Institute for Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP) and distributed by the Oklahoma Policy Institute, clearly shows Fallin’s proposal is primarily designed to reduce the tax burden for the wealthy at the expense of the poor and middle class.

In her State of the State speech earlier this month, Fallin proposed cutting the top income tax rate from 5.25 to 5 percent despite the fact that Oklahoma faces a $170 million budget shortfall and has cut per pupil spending on a percentage basis more than any other state in the nation since 2008.

The regressive tax cut would mean a $135 million annual loss in revenue, according to OK Policy, while 41 percent of Oklahomans wouldn’t get a break at all because they aren’t taxed at the top income rate.

Pension Paranoia, March 3, 2014

I’m glad that at least one statewide Republican leader has publicly asked for an actuarial study to determine the specific financial impact of a proposed and radical change to one state pension plan.

Oklahoma State Auditor and Inspector Gary Jones, writing in The Oklahoman/NewsOK.com, argues, “Any changes to the pension systems must be verified by an actuarial study to provide the impact those changes will have to the fiscal stability of the plan. It only makes sense to give the pension experts, CPAs and actuaries a chance to fix this problem. Working with these experts, legislators would be able to make the necessary, tough, informed decisions to find an actuarially sound solution.”

Jones’ point makes perfect sense, but some Republican leaders, such as Oklahoma Treasurer Ken Miller and Gov. Mary Fallin, both Republicans, are simply relying on reductionist rhetoric to move some new state employees into 401(k)-styled pensions without defined benefit payments and thereby putting one pension plan at risk.

Senate Bill 2120 and House Bill 2630 would require that new state employees under the Oklahoma Public Employees Retirement System (OPERS) go into a new 401(k)-styled plan. One major question that hasn’t been addressed fully by Miller and Fallin, according to some opponents of their plan, is how the old plan would still remain solvent without new participants.

A Big Fail: OKC Holds Undemocratic Meeting On Lake Hefner Fracking Proposal

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When it comes to basic democratic principles and the freedom of political expression, the public meeting Thursday to discuss a proposal to allow fracking adjacent to Lake Hefner was a complete sham.

Democracy is NOT alive and well in Oklahoma City, folks.

Although citizens here should be rightly concerned that new fracking at Lake Hefner could lead to the contamination of a major city water supply, they also should be furious that Oklahoma City officials seem intent on crushing any dissent about the proposed project with heavy-handed tactics that reek of collusion with a local oil company.

The Will Rogers Conservatory in Oklahoma City was the venue for the meeting. (A photograph of the meeting is pictured to the right.) The two attached rooms that were used for seating were far too small for the turnout, and people were initially turned away before officials announced they would hold another meeting directly after the initial meeting. By that time many people had left, although hundreds remained outside in the cold and rain protesting loudly. The sound system was so bad or adjusted in such a mediocre manner only about half of the people at the initial meeting could actually hear the presentation itself and the question and answer period. Those people that could hear were often abused by piercing microphone feedback. The presentation by Pedestal Oil Company, which wants to drill near the lake, was meandering and amateurish and seemed designed to deflect important questions.

So much went wrong before and during the meeting that I need to run through it all just to get a handle on all the dissent squashing tactics used by Oklahoma City in what appears to me to be collusion between the city and Pedestal.

(1) The timing of the event. The Oklahoma City Water Utilities Trust announced the meeting just a few days ago. The date for the meeting was right before Christmas, a busy time of the year when many people are traveling. Why the rush? Why not wait until after the holiday season? This was never adequately explained by Oklahoma City officials and others presenting at the meeting. Was the decision made to hold the meeting so quickly and at a busy time of the year in order to limit the expression of dissent?

(2) The event’s venue. For some reason, city officials chose the Will Rogers Conservatory as the venue for the event. There was seating for perhaps only 125 people or so in the two rooms. The attendees in one of the rooms simply couldn’t hear anything and many of them left. Why such a small venue? City officials had to know, as Ward 2 Councilor Ed Shadid argued, that the meeting would attract hundreds of people. There are any number of venues throughout the city that could handle large crowds, a point made by Shadid. Did city leaders choose the small venue intentionally? How could any reasonable person not suspect this? Wouldn't it be interesting if the city held a public meeting on this issue outside under a large tent next to a fracking site? That would take care of the crowd-size issue and be informative as well.

(3) The sound system. As I mentioned before, the sound system was so bad or managed so ineffectively it was difficult for anyone to hear. Certainly, the people stuck in the “second room” couldn’t hear at all unless it was the constant, piercingly loud feedback. (This is not sarcasm.) Why wasn’t the sound system checked out before the meeting? Is this yet another example of how the city is trying to limit debate on this issue?

(4) The mediocre presentation by Pedestal. The presentation on behalf of Pedestal Oil Company, which could wind up drilling six wells just south of Lake Hefner, was just simply terrible. One of the presenters, Pedestal president David Singer, began with a meandering history of himself and his company and how he cared about Oklahoma City. The vast majority of the people there wanted to hear about the proposal, not about Singer’s life or his company’s history. The company brought small amateurish charts placed on easels that were difficult to view. Certainly, people in the “second room” were unable to see them. Why didn’t they use a computer and projector and a screen like most professionals do these days? Does this apparent lack of technology prowess by the company’s top officials spill over into its operations? Is this the type of company we should allow to frack for oil and gas near and under the city’s water supply?

(5) Oklahoma City officials at the meeting were inept and condescending. With the exception of Ward 2 Councilor Ed Shadid, who said he was heartbroken over how people were being treated, city officials at the meeting were inept. I will focus on Marsha Slaughter, the manager of the Oklahoma City Water Utilities Trust, who handled much of the meeting, Why didn’t she ensure the sound system was working? Why didn’t she apologize profusely for the lack of enough space? She cut people off. At one point, Slaughter referred to the “occupy people” outside in the cold and rain who wanted to get inside. This was absurd. The vast majority of the people there were local residents concerned about their homes and recreational area whatever their views on the Occupy Movement, which is hardly a major force in politics anyway. Slaughter’s comment was a huge condescending generalization and was obviously used to marginalize dissent. She owes people an apology.

(6) The timeline for additional comments. People at the meeting were handed a form at the meeting, which stated the city would be taking comments on the issue through Monday, Dec. 22. That’s only four days away. That quick time frame, along with the sudden announcement of the meeting itself, can obviously be viewed as an attempt to limit comments and debate. Why wouldn’t someone against the proposal see it this way?

The proposal itself is fairly basic. Pedestal would conduct some exploratory drilling just south of the lake to determine if it’s worth its time financially. If the area is viable for oil and gas drilling, the company would complete up to six wells. The wastewater from the hydraulic fracturing would be trucked away from the site. The city would receive royalties from the production. This money would be used for improvements at city recreational areas, including Lake Hefner.

Those opposed to the plan, including myself, are concerned the lake, which is a main water supply for the city, could end up contaminated. This would be a major disaster for central Oklahoma. Environmentalists for years have argued that hydraulic fracturing or fracking leads to water contamination. Overall, oil and gas industry officials, of course, claim the process is safe, but just type the words “fracking” and “water contamination” in your browser’s search engine and start reading. (Caution: It might take you a while to go through it all.)

In the fracking process, water laced with toxic chemicals is injected by high pressure into rock formations to release fossil fuels. The wastewater from the process is usually injected by high pressure into what are known as disposal wells, a process scientists believe leads to earthquakes.

The movement against fracking continues to grow. In two recent related actions, the city of Denton, Texas, recently actually voted to ban fracking in its city limits and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has announced he will ban fracking in his state.

Some questions that Pedestal has not answered publicly and thoroughly is why it wants to drill near Lake Hefner in the first place. Is it more financially feasible for the company to drill there than somewhere else? Is that area especially rich in fossil fuels? Why aren’t more companies vying to drill there? Why drill now when there’s a world oil and gas glut?

But the main question for everyone here, however, should be this: Why risk the city’s water supply?

Pedestal’s proposal must first be approved by the Oklahoma City Water Utilities Trust board and then the full Oklahoma City Council. Unfortunately, given Thursday’s meeting, it seems like a done deal at this point. Why didn’t Mayor Mick Cornett attend this important meeting? Is he in favor of the proposal or not?

Shadid, a local physician who lost a mayoral election bid, tried to calm the crowd inside and outside Thursday. He indicated in a brief talk outside in the rain and the cold as people still remained locked out of the meeting venue that he might put together his own town hall on the issue. That would be helpful, but has the decision to drill already been made?

Let me end with this: If you want to email the Oklahoma City Water Utilities Trust with your comments on this issue, you can do so at ocwut-support@okc.gov. Fittingly, right now, if you go to the trust’s site on the issue as I write this, the email address is given erroneously as ocwut-suppport@okc.gova>. Mediocrity and collusion have always had a symbiotic relationship.

Fracking Alert: Lake Hefner Meeting On Thursday

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This is just a short reminder that a public meeting to discuss a proposal by Pedestal Oil Company to drill for oil and gas, which would apparently include fracking, just south of Lake Hefner will be held at 6 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 18, at the Will Rogers Conservatory, 3400 W. 36th St., in Oklahoma City.

It’s an important meeting, which comes at a busy time of the year, because Lake Hefner is a main water supply for Oklahoma City. Environmentalists, as I mentioned in my last post, have long argued that hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, can cause water contamination. Scientists argue that the dramatic surge in earthquakes here in Oklahoma can be linked to wastewater disposal wells used in the fracking process.

The Lake Hefner area is also a major recreational area for the city, with trails and a golf course, and it’s uncertain how drilling activities would impact this aspect of the area in terms of noise, scenic beauty and basic access. It’s difficult to imagine it would do so in any positive manner.

Fracking is a process in which chemicals and water are injected by high pressure into rock formations releasing fossil fuels. The wastewater is then usually injected again by high pressure into wastewater disposal or injection wells, which scientists argue can cause earthquakes along fault lines.

Again, here’s my last post, which goes into more details about the proposal and other related issues. As I wrote, “. . . common sense would dictate a city government would do everything in its power to protect its drinking water.”

Why frack Lake Hefner? Right now, there’s a world oil and gas glut that has driven down prices and could well do damage to the state economy, which is heavily dependent on the energy industry. There are undoubtedly many other places to drill in Oklahoma. Why do it adjacent to an important water supply?

A NewsOK.com story mentions that under the current proposal, the Oklahoma City water utilities trust stands to earn 21 percent in royalties from the drilling, but, really, is it worth the risk? If Lake Hefner were to get contaminated with chemical toxins, it would be a major crisis in central Oklahoma.

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