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Major State Pension Change Seems Certain

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The Oklahoma House has now passed a plan to reduce retirement benefits for many future state employees without conducting or calling for a thorough study to determine how it will impact current workers.

On Tuesday, the House voted 57-42 to place future state employees under the Oklahoma Public Employees Retirement System in a 401(k)-styled plan that will likely result in less overall retirement money for them. What’s more, the lack of new money coming into the old pension system, which pays a defined benefit, could create a new financial crisis, threatening the benefits of current retirees and those close to retirement.

The bottom line is that legislators have cut retirement benefits for future state employees and put the retirement system of current state employees at risk. In essence, they have, in one vote, destabilized the lives of thousands of state workers.

This Republican-led assault on state employees has been done under the guise of saving the current retirement system and even enhancing benefits for new employees. That ruse has been perpetuated not only by individual legislators but by Gov. Mary Fallin and Oklahoma Treasurer Ken Miller as well. By refusing to call for or conduct a thorough actuarial study on the change, Miller, in particular, seems to be violating the actual intent of his office.

The Oklahoma Senate has also passed a similar bill. It seems certain at this point the change will become law. The legislature’s actions mirror those in other states where government employees are now under attack primarily by Republican lawmakers, who push for tax cuts for wealthy people and corporations while stripping underpaid rank-and-file workers of benefits.

For now, teachers and public safety employees, who also remain underpaid and under appreciated, have been spared, but that could easily change.

Republicans have pointed to the current and collective $11 billion liability in all of the state’s pension plans as a reason for the change, but that liability has dropped from $16 billion in recent years after financial reforms. Why change course now?

Republicans have also made a big deal over the portability of the new pension plan while downplaying the lack of guaranteed benefits. It might well be easier for future employees who work for the state for only a few years to manage their retirement money, but what about valuable, long-term employees who have dedicated their entire work life to government service?

It’s telling that an actuarial study determining the financial impact of the change on the old system has not been conducted even though some people, including State Auditor and Inspector Gary Jones, a Republican, have spoken out about it. I have written about that issue here.

What seems obvious is that such a study would show that the lack of new money coming into the old system will eventually threaten its financial investment returns and put it at risk. At that point, lawmakers and state leaders will declare yet another crisis and cut retirement benefits again.

Meanwhile, in what can been seen as a perfunctory apologia for the retirement cut, the House also overwhelmingly approved a bill to give targeted raises to some state employees, who haven’t received an across the board raise for seven years. The proposed raises would apparently go to the most underpaid state employees compared to the private sector, but it’s unclear just exactly where the money will come from because the state faces a budget shortfall.

It shouldn’t be surprising to anyone if the raises don’t make it into the final budget.

Large Earthquake Linked Again To Wastewater Injection

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The evidence is mounting that the dramatic surge in earthquakes here in Oklahoma can be related to oil and gas drilling activities, but will state leaders do anything about it?

On Thursday, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) issued a media release citing its study that a 5.7 magnitude earthquake that struck near Prague in November, 2011 “was the largest human-caused earthquake associated with wastewater injection.”

The coauthor of the study, Elizabeth Cochran, a USGS seismologist, pointed to an earlier earthquake of 5.0 magnitude the day before that may have led to the larger earthquake. The initial earthquake may have been caused by wastewater injection. Cochran said, “"The observation that a human-induced earthquake can trigger a cascade of earthquakes, including a larger one, has important implications for reducing the seismic risk from wastewater injection.”

In oil and gas drilling processes, including hydraulic fracturing or “fracking,” massive amounts of wastewater are injected by high pressure into underground rock formations. These sites are called wastewater injection wells. Some scientists believe this process can destabilize underground surfaces and trigger earthquakes along the state’s fault lines.

Last year, Scientists from the University of Oklahoma and Columbia University also argued that the 5.7 magnitude earthquake could be related to wastewater injection wells. That earthquake, the largest ever recorded in Oklahoma, damaged several homes.

In recent years, there have been literally hundreds of earthquakes, mostly small, in Oklahoma. Some residents here have been worried that the smaller earthquakes could be a prelude to a major temblor that might cause massive damage and take lives.

There are new regulations for more thorough inspections of injections wells under consideration by the Oklahoma Corporation Commission, but they apparently have to be approved by the legislature and governor.

The questions are whether the new inspections go far enough to ensure the safety of Oklahoma residents and whether the Republican-dominated government here will take any action that might be opposed by the powerful oil and gas political lobby.

As I’ve argued before, this is an important safety and economic issue in Oklahoma, one that has the potential to severely impact lives and future development. Who wants to live or build a home in an area that experiences hundreds of earthquakes each year?

The oil and gas industry, which is experiencing a mini-boom in the state and other areas of the country, is certainly important to Oklahoma, but at some point earthquake risk factors and other environmental factors related to fracking outweigh its overall economic impact.

Meanwhile, it’s vitally important that the USGS and scientists continue to study the surge in earthquakes here over the last two or three years. It could literally be a matter of life and death.

Conference Time

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I’m giving a presentation at an academic literary conference in San Antonio this weekend so I’m taking a much-needed break from writing about the Oklahoma political scene today.

My presentation, “Fuku or Zafa? Teaching the Raw Language of Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao,” tries to deal with the issue of teaching literary texts that contain racially-charged language. What are the best practices? How have they changed through the years? How does Oscar Wao, in particular, open up opportunities for understanding the use of such language in and on the borders of the Latino community?

Diaz’s novel won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2008.

In an interview, Diaz, a Dominican American, has argued, “Latinos are a racial complexity that the U.S. seems ill-suited and unwilling to confront.”

The Latina/o Literary Landscape conference, a part of the American Literature Association, is meeting for three days in downtown San Antonio, and I’m looking forward to immersing myself in literature I love to teach and write about while exchanging ideas and catching up with other professors, literary critics and writers.

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