Gov. Mary Fallin, in what is becoming another desperate search for a tax cut, has dropped her demand for a tax decrease this coming year and says she’s open to proposals that would slash rates in 2015 and in subsequent years.
House Speaker T.W. Shannon, a Lawton Republican, has also joined Fallin in a new show of openness and compromise over a Senate tax cut proposal. Both Shannon and Fallin had previously insisted on a tax cut for 2014.
This is mixed news. While it’s encouraging Fallin and Shannon might be open to a delay in a cut and support some reform of the tax code, including the elimination of unneeded credits, it also begs this question: Why not just wait until next legislative session to cut taxes since the initial decrease wouldn’t go into effect until 2015? Wouldn’t it be more responsible to just wait and see how well the economy is doing next year?
Of course, the real GOP elephant in the living room is that Oklahoma is still recovering from the Great Recession, recent budget cuts have devastated education funding and the tax cuts will primarily benefit only the wealthiest Oklahomans.
Are Republicans at this point just trying to pass a tax cut only for the sake of saying they cut taxes? I think so. Beyond sweeping generalizations—people need more money in their pockets, tax cuts will attract businesses, etc.—Republicans have offered no rational reason for a tax cut at this time, especially given recent budget cuts and pressing infrastructure needs.
Here’s where we stand. The House passed a Fallin-supported bill that would lower the tax rate from 5.25 to 5 percent in 2014 without any offsets. They also killed a Senate proposal that delayed a tax cut until 2015 and also dealt with deductions and credits. When the Senate got the House tax measure, contained in HB 2032, a committee inserted new language in it that would delay a tax cut from 5.25 to 4.95 percent until 2015 and sunset some tax credits.
What has transpired since is the type of Republican infighting that doomed a tax cut last legislative session. At first, Fallin and Shannon insisted on a 2014 tax cut. Now, they’ve backed off the rhetoric, and are indicating they could accept delaying a cut, especially if it’s larger. So it’s back to square one.
As expected, the trashy spectacle of the crumbling state Capitol building has become an important part of the GOP intraparty fight. Sometimes symbols—state Capitol buildings are about as symbolic as you get—are extremely important. Republicans are considering tax cuts in a building that has to be fenced off in places because pieces of it are falling to the ground. Scaffolding is in place to protect people from getting hit from dropping limestone fragments. The building needs major electrical and plumbing work as well. The building is now listed as an endangered historic place by Preservation Oklahoma, Inc.
It could take more than $200 million to repair and renovate the building, but it appears Republicans would rather give big tax breaks to millionaires than fix the house. State Senate President Brian Bingman, a Sapulpa Republican, and Shannon can’t even agree on whether the issue should be studied, much less on an aggressive plan for repairs. A bond issue to repair the building, even supported by the ultra-conservative editorial board of The Oklahoman, was deemed out of the question by House Republicans even before the session began.
It will probably take a major accident and ensuing lawsuit to get the current Republican majority at the Capitol to take action on the building.
Meanwhile, under Fallin’s initial tax cut proposal, 43 percent of Oklahomans wouldn’t even get a tax cut, according to the Oklahoma Policy Institute. The median cut would be just $39 annually. The real breaks go to those with household incomes in the top 1 percent. The plan would reduce revenue by more than $100 million a year. The current Senate plan would reduce revenues even more.
Let’s get back to education, which is just one area of government that has faced decreased state support in recent years. Gene Perry, an analyst with OK Policy, points out that funding for state schools has decreased by $200 million in the last four years and that higher education has seen its state support drop by 26.2 percent in the last five years.
It is fundamentally wrong to reward millionaires with tax breaks while systematically defunding state educational institutions. All of us who live here are going to pay the price for this ideological error.
In its quest to lionize Oklahoma’s U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn as some type of great thinker of our time, The Oklahoman editorial board has offered up for our enlightenment some fancy Coburn witticisms that seem far more crazy than profound.
Meanwhile, Oklahoma U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe, who at 78 has indicated he plans to run for reelection in 2014, has vowed to stop any efforts in the Senate to pass the minor gun control measures under consideration in the wake of the Newtown, CT shootings that left 20 school children and six adults dead.
Coburn and Inhofe represent an outdated, dying set of political beliefs repudiated by President Barack Obama’s convincing reelection in 2012. They rile up the angry home folks here, for sure, but if this state had just 200,000 more college graduates it would never elect anyone even remotely like them.
Let’s start with Coburn. Last Sunday, The Oklahoman editorial page published a commentary that argues, in its clichéd, hackneyed way, “Congress could use more members like Coburn, who puts country first.” He’s not like “The Great Divider,” i.e. Obama. What’s more, “Coburn is willing to make the difficult decisions.” Insightful, no?
To prove its astounding, nonpartisan thesis, the editorial announces: “Today we present Coburn in his own words, about the most pressing concerns of the day.” Sound the trumpets! Drum roll, puhleease. What follows are an assortment of boring, Coburn quotes that mostly just regurgitate the GOP line. Some of them, however, are just plain whacky or seem like typical Republican truth stretchers. Read them for yourselves. I’ve selected a few, not in any certain order, to parse through in this post.
Coburn: “You've got to give him (Obama) credit. He's an ideologue. He actually believes in socialism. He thinks that's the way to solve the problem. And it's an elitist view that says Washington knows better than what the individual family or statesman (does).”
So does essentially labeling Obama a socialist mean he’s making the “difficult decisions” in Washington? No, it proves Coburn is a partisan, who will stoop to hyperbole and name calling to scare people here into voting for Republicans. It’s also a rejection of intellectualism. Coburn has to know what socialism is, and he has to know that Obama is not a socialist.
Coburn: “Government's 89 percent bigger than it was 10 years ago. Personal income's down 5 percent in this country. And they want to claim that we need more government to be able to solve our problems. And the problem is we're incapable of managing the government we have today.”
I tried to find some verification for Coburn’s statement about government growth but failed. I did find somewhat reputable articles that showed the number of government employees has declined under the Obama administration and overall government spending as a percentage of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) has risen by less than 10 percent since 2003. Both articles had conservative bents. Just like the socialist comment, this fancy witticism seems basically untrue.
Coburn: “Start treating health care like every other resource in the country. Create a real market that's transparent, created where payment is connected with the purchase. And American consumers, they're the best buyers in the world at everything else, they will lower the cost of health care.
“Our total care will decline rapidly in this country under the Affordable Care Act, the quality of care — plus we're going to ration Medicare.”
That Coburn wants a commercial health care system that is basically only accountable to “free-market” (free to die) principles is nothing new. But two statements stand out. First, Americans are absolutely NOT the best buyers in the world and they are often manipulated by unscrupulous corporations. Look at the mortgage crisis. Second, and this is more important, there is no movement to “ration Medicare,” certainly not among Democrats. If Medicare would ever be rationed—what does that even mean?—it would be part of a Republican plan to try to end the program altogether. Coburn is trying to scare people.
The editorial also contained some Coburn comments about excessive job programs in Ada that seem exaggerated and, at the very least, needs some verification from the state’s largest newspaper.
In the end, it’s just the same Coburn we’ve always known, taking ideological jabs and distorting facts while hiding under his cover as some bipartisan, fiscal expert. The Oklahoman seems quite content to perpetuate this real hoax among its dwindling readership.
Speaking of hoaxes, that man that once proclaimed that the science underpinning global warming was a type of liberal “hoax” has now turned his attention to gun control. Inhofe, along with other Republican Senators, has vowed to filibuster any gun control measures that come before the Senate. One of the proposals would expand background checks on those who purchase guns.
Obama has made gun control a priority since the Newtown shootings, and a group made up of family members of victims recently visited Washington to meet with Congressional members and push for gun control measures. According to Inhofe, “See, I think it's so unfair of the administration to hurt these families, to make them think this has something to do with them when, in fact, it doesn't.” This is just more Obama bashing, and it lacks basic compassion for those mothers and fathers who lost their children in the shootings.
Inhofe and Coburn continue to base their political platforms on creating as much anti-Obama hysteria in the state as they can and then reaping the benefits of that through constituent support. That’s about the sum total of what they stand for right now. They don’t let truth get in their way, and they are as willing as the next Republican to use the GOP standard talking points.
The Oklahoman commentary that poses Coburn as some type of great thinker of his time is laughable. In fact, the rhetorical love fest does more damage to Coburn than good because it shows just what an ideologue he remains. What’s not laughable is another six-year term for Inhofe, which seems like it’s going to happen.
It’s taken some time, but the academic side of higher education, along with an attendant philosophy of open, shared knowledge, are finally asserting themselves in digital learning at universities throughout the country.
An open, elearning system is remarkably good news for Oklahoma, with its low college graduation rate and overall underfunded educational systems, just as long as higher education leaders here recognize that MOOCs and the soon-to-be launched DPLA are opportunities, not threats to their individual turfs.
Massive Open Source Online Courses (MOOCs) and the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA), which launches April 18, represent a turn away from the corporate model of education and places professors and teaching, and, of course, students, at the forefront of elearning. Corporate learning management systems, from Blackboard to Desire2Learn, have for too long dictated the terms of online intellectual engagement at universities, especially smaller, non-research colleges with limited funding. Online, for-profit colleges can never duplicate in any sustainable sense the academic rigor offered by our public and private universities, especially our leading institutions of knowledge.
Before I go further, let me give some background. MOOCs, which came into the academic scene a couple of years ago, are free online courses offered by some of the country’s premiere universities, such as Harvard and MIT. Anyone with an email address can take courses—“Epidemiology: The Basic Science of Public Health,” “Write Like Mozart: An Introduction To Classical Music Composition,” and “Greek and Roman Mythology” to name just a few-- through systems such as Coursera and edX. The courses are not currently offered for credit, but that could soon change.
The Digital Public Library of America is a project began in 2010 that aims, according to one of DPLA’s founders, Harvard professor Robert Darnton, to “make the holdings of America’s research libraries, archives, and museums available to all Americans—and eventually to everyone in the world—online and free of charge.” It will launch April 18 in an initial, limited form. The plan is to build the DPLA into what would be the largest bank of accessible knowledge ever in the history of mankind. The scope of the project simply can’t be understated.
Can you imagine having every written artifact in history and much more available to you in a matter of seconds? It will revolutionize information science, and could help universities save millions of dollars (maybe even more) through centralization.
At the philosophical core of MOOCs and the DPLA is the idea that knowledge and learning should be a shared, global experience, which will create better societies and advance mankind even further in the sciences and the arts. It’s the culmination, really, of the so-called Information Age in which we live. We’re not there yet, of course, but the trajectory is clear. It’s difficult to not look at all this in utopian terms, but there’s also a pragmatic side. In discussing the DPLA, Darnton writes:
What could be more utopian than a project to make the cultural heritage of humanity available to all humans? What could be more pragmatic than the designing of a system to link up millions of megabytes and deliver them to readers in the form of easily accessible texts?
The dilemma, of course, is the question over how are we going to pay for all this, and the answer is that we can’t afford to NOT go forward. Again, it’s difficult not to place it in sweeping terms. Our very existence on this planet may well depend on the main philosophy driving MOOCs and the DPLA. That doesn’t pay a professor’s salary, of course, but just as media outlets have had to adjust to the reality of the Internet so, too, must universities. I may risk ridicule here, but the money issue seems trivial when compared to the overall conception of what MOOCs and the DPLA offer mankind.
In practical terms, MOOCs could be offered for credit in the days ahead and a combination of taxpayer and institutional money could be used to subsidize online education to underserved populations throughout the world. The DPLA, funded now by foundations, has many different partners and stakeholders, and could conceivably survive financially under its current, fiscal model.
As I stated before, what I find so encouraging about MOOCs and the DPLA is the new surge of academic energy in online learning. I’ve taught online courses for some ten years now, and I’ve seen how corporate learning management systems have influenced pedagogy and class structure with mixed results. MOOCs are built around the professor; it’s not the professor building a course within a for-profit platform that will always increase in cost and will always have built-it obstacles to limit sharing or changing systems. MOOCs reassert the simple premise that it’s the instructor that determines course quality, not the technology itself, not a mid-level university administrator often without academic experience. It’s the instructor’s expertise, her credentials, her commitment that matters, not the underlying computer code, which in the case of MOOCs is open source and available to everyone. This is not to say that corporations don’t or can’t have a role in both MOOCs and the DPLA, but openness and sharing, their driving force, are the antithesis of monopoly and control.
What does all this mean for our state? The concepts of MOOC’s and the DPLA represent a huge opportunity for Oklahoma. It’s been my experience that online learning here overall has been somewhat slow to develop and hindered by limited funding, institutional bias and lack of foresight. For example, the former provost at Oklahoma State University, Robert Sternberg, now the president of the University of Wyoming, recently made it a point to argue that online learning had limitations. But these new trends in online learning could open the door for thousands of Oklahomans, who want a college degree but face life obstacles in attending a college as traditional students. The state has chronically lagged behind the national average in the number of its college graduates. MOOCs and the DPLA also have the capability, if managed appropriately, to help make a dent in the nation’s student-debt problem if courses remain free or reasonably priced while allowing students to take courses with some of the best professors in the country and in our state.
The new trends in online learning also open new opportunities for collaboration among our state’s many universities.