The continued lack of anything close to adequate funding for public education is one of the major disappointments of the Republican state budget proposal currently making its way through the legislature, but one of its glaring omissions is a big letdown as well.
The budget contains no raise for the state’s some 34,000 employees, who haven’t seen an overall, across-the-board salary increase since 2006 when Brad Henry was governor.
Some agencies have found money for raises in that time period, and Oklahoma Highway Patrol Troopers and some other law enforcements agencies may still be hoping for a raise this session, but it’s clear that the bulk of state employees, with some exceptions, are clearly unappreciated by the Republican-dominated political leadership.
That this has created a morale problem is a huge understatement. I know several state workers, and, though this is anecdotal, most of them believe the current political milieu at the Capitol is hostile and demeaning when it comes to their concerns. These state employees do some of the most important and demanding work in our culture for low pay within underfunded systems, and they get treated with disrespect and suspicion by the GOP leadership.
Gov. Mary Fallin has set the tone by dismissing the idea of a simple cost-of-living raise and instead calling for a study that would compare state employee salaries with salaries in the private sector with the goal of eventually creating a performance-based system for raises and adjustments. In other words, the state will spend $200,000 for what will probably be a biased report that will somehow incredibly show state employees are overpaid.
How can you compare the salary of a child welfare social worker in the field with anyone else’s salary in the private sector?
The hostility is also apparent in the GOP rhetoric of “right-sizing” government and in its efforts to cut taxes for the state’s wealthy while downplaying commitments to provide basic state services and adequate education funding.
Much of this hostility, which is happening in other Republican-dominated state governments as well, can be seen ultimately as a backlash against the nation’s first African American president and carries racist overtones. Unfortunately, Republicans on the national level have also stalemated Congress and in the process have denied President Barack Obama and Democrats any chance of providing more stimulus money to the states.
The national political tension and the Republican-dominance of state government here mean state employees must go years without cost-of-living raises while working in overly demanding situations. They forge on because for many state employees their job is a calling, a way to make a meaningful contribution to the culture here in Oklahoma.
Let’s be clear: State employees deserve raises, not a study.
I’m surprised Gov. Mary Fallin and other Republican leaders didn’t hold a big ceremony Monday as the governor signed the new workers’ compensation “reform” bill into law.
After all, the GOP has touted for weeks how Senate Bill 1062, the measure changing the state’s workers compensation system, is “historic” and, as with just about every other legislation Republicans pass, is sure to bring a stampede of regulation-escaping businesses here.
Instead, Fallin issued a short press release with the usual dose of Republican mythology. “This is an important pro-growth policy,” Fallin mentioned, “that will help us attract jobs and build a stronger and more prosperous Oklahoma.” We’ll all live happily ever after, right?
What the press release doesn’t mention, of course, are the recently released statistics about the state's workers either killed or injured on the job in 2011. The numbers, which I will get to later, aren’t good. The new workers’ compensation bill, of course, includes nothing significant to promote workplace safety as it reduces benefits for workers.
It seems to me that a civilized society would be more focused on preventing job-related injuries and deaths than making it easier for companies to escape their responsibility for maintaining unsafe work environments. Safer workplaces here and elsewhere would bring down costs for everyone, including businesses.
Workers’ compensation is a process by which injured workers are compensated for medical costs and lost work time. The process can vary state-to-state.
SB 1062 changes the Oklahoma workers' compensation process from a judicial process to an administrative process. It allows companies to opt out of the system entirely if they provide their own benefits for injured workers. It also reduces maximum benefits for temporarily and completely disabled workers from 100 percent to 70 percent of the state average weekly wages. Injured workers who make less than the weekly average will, of course, only get 70 percent of their own wages, not the state average. The highest amount a temporarily disabled worker can receive under the new system has gone down from $771 to $539.70.
Changing the system to a supposedly less adversarial administrative process will bring Oklahoma in line with most states, but it’s difficult to see it as a panacea. The opt-out measure could be hard to enforce for compliance and open the doors for businesses to provide only minimum coverage, which was set at a $2 million policy with medical costs capped at $500,000. The reduction in benefits is simply that, a reduction in benefits for workers who are seriously injured on the job.
All of this is supposedly going to reduce workers’ compensation insurance costs for businesses here. If it does, and that remains to be seen, it will be at the expense of workers. It’s simply impossible to see it otherwise. That the system here needed streamlining or structural changes is one thing, and such changes can be argued, but allowing companies to opt out of the main system and actually reducing the amount of money a seriously injured worker can receive are not so arguable for what they signify. These two changes are clearly designed to help companies at the expense of workers, some of whom do extremely dangerous jobs day after day.
Dangerous work coupled with unsafe work environments leads to deaths and injuries. In Oklahoma, 86 people were killed on the job in 2011, the last year for which statistics are available, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. That’s a rate of 5.5 percent for every 100,000 workers, which is higher than the national rate of 3.5 percent. In addition, 40,600 Oklahoma workers were injured on the job in 2011, the organization reports. Nationally, 4,693 workers were killed on the job in 2011, the department reports. These numbers here and across the country have been fairly stagnant since 2008.
The AFL-CIO argues that a main reason for the bleak numbers here and elsewhere is because the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) can’t perform needed workplace inspections because of its inadequate funding and low staff levels. Oklahoma doesn’t have a state OSHA program, but the AFL-CIO point applies here as well.
Performing workplace inspections and eliminating job-related deaths and injuries in Oklahoma should be just as an important issue as trying to help corporations reduce costs related to safety issues. That’s not going to happen in Oklahoma anytime soon under its Republican-dominated government, and so the tragedy continues.
It was only a matter of time because of the recent cool temperatures here in Oklahoma, but U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe, the world’s most infamous global-warming science denier, has now weighed in on the issue with a typical dose of snark.
Last week, Inhofe issued a press statement titled, “Global Warming Alarmists Should Send Some of Their Hot Air to Warm Up Oklahoma,” that, as the title indicates, essentially argues that the abnormal, cooler temperatures in the state are proof that climate change is, well, simply “hot air.”
The argument is obviously nothing new for Inhofe, and, to his credit, he even referred to his “climate awareness friends” in the release. Good natured fun, right? Well, it’s only fun until you realize that Inhofe has cherry picked the science and used cold weather events throughout his career to argue there is some type of left-wing conspiracy among scientists to bring down the fossil-fuel industry.
The real alarmist, of course, is Inhofe himself, who has pretty much based his entire Senate career on fighting a straw man he pretty much created single handedly. That fictional straw man is the mad, leftist scientist who wants an immediate end to the use of fossil fuels in the world and, in a diabolical and secret quest, will lie and cheat and hurt people, especially those executives at oil and gas companies.
The short press release, published Friday, doesn’t mention that Inhofe from 2007 to 2012 has collected $550,950 in campaign funding from oil and gas companies, but it does mention how “our job-creating energy sector is being attacked.” That says much about Inhofe’s credibility.
So, once again, for the record: Global warming is happening, and it’s real. Variations in temperatures from one year to the next don’t matter nearly as much as long-term patterns. Look at these charts dating various temperature averages from 1880 to 2012 from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. The planetary air temperature is also just one factor. For example, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration recently reported that ocean surface temperatures last year were the highest in 150 years.
As one climate-change scientist, Peter Gleick, has noted many global warmer deniers, such as Inhofe, engage in deceptions and falsehoods. In February, 2012, Gleick wrote:
These statements are scurrilous deceptions and falsehoods. The planet is warming – an observation noted by every climate research institution tracking temperatures, the US National Academy of Sciences (over and over and over), every other national academy of sciences on the planet, and every professional society in the geosciences.
Another recurring issue is Inhofe’s straw man. There are certainly environmental activists that engage in what some in the country might view as extreme acts, but the vast majority of people who argue for a reduction in the use of fossil fuels and carbon emissions are just regular people who drive cars and fly in airplanes and want to do the right thing. In fact, most of us are not alarmist enough over the issue, especially given the simple fact that the planet one day could be sucked dry of fossil fuels. What happens then? Renewable energy sources ultimately equal sustaining life.
We also don’t receive money in campaign contributions like Inhofe to gain power to express a particular point of view. Just that conflict alone should render Inhofe’s arguments biased and not worthy of consideration, but the corporate media here gives him a pass on that major conflict of interest.
Primarily, Inhofe can engage in his snarky ways because he’s supported by one of the most conservative newspapers in the world, The Oklahoman, which is owned by Colorado billionaire Philip Anschutz, an oil and gas magnate.
A recent editorial in The Oklahoman was highly critical of what it called “anti-fossil fuel forces," who have predicted a “global warming apocalypse” that has now supposedly come under scrutiny. The editorial is filled with straw man arguments and general arguments not supported by empirical evidence.
It’s a shame that some Oklahoma farmers suffered crop losses due to the seasonally late freezes, and it’s a good thing that recent rains here have made a dent in the severe drought. None of that, however, disproves global warming.