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More Pension Cuts Next Year?

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The only question now is what’s next when it comes to cutting state pension plans in Oklahoma?

Gov. Mary Fallin has signed into law a bill that ends pensions for new state employees under the Oklahoma Public Employees Retirement System (OPERs), moving new hires into 401(k)-styled plans that don’t offer a guaranteed benefit.

The bill, pushed by top conservative leaders, such as Fallin and Oklahoma Treasurer Ken Miller, is only the first step in the deliberate act of gutting pension systems for state employees, including teachers. Conservatives have deployed the usual rhetoric of “reform” in their attack, and state employees let it happen without too much protest. What chance did they have to stop it, anyway?

Ostensibly, the reason for going to a defined-contribution plan—new employees will pay at least 3 percent into it and the state matches up to 7 percent—is that OPERS faces unfunded liabilities. But at least one report indicates it’s one of the top performing retirement systems in the state. If a decently funded retirement system covering 50,000 employees and 30,000 retirees gets on the chopping block, what’s going to happen with the Oklahoma Teachers Retirement System (OTRS), which is in worse financial shape than OPERS? That system will probably be targeted next for “reform.”

Lost in all the conservative self-congratulatory and grandiose statements after the bill was passed and then signed into law were these two points: (1) State lawmakers and other leaders have failed miserably through the years to fully fund the retirement systems here for state employees, and (2) if no new employees are paying into the old defined-benefit system how can it possibly remain solvent. Conservatives will force the crisis to take away pensions. It’s really that simple.

Perhaps, the most incredulous argument has been made by the editorial page of The Oklahoman, which whines that because most employees at private companies have defined-contribution plans or no plans at all, then it only follows that government employees should join them in this country’s current great race to the bottom precipitated by growing income inequality. The rich, after all, need their tax cuts and loopholes so the rest of us can have a lousy retirement or no retirement at all.

Speaking of the rich, lawmakers this session also made permanent gross production tax cuts for the oil and gas industry, which at one time used to pay 7 percent on wells. Now the tax rate will be 2 percent for the first three years of a new well and then 7 percent after that. The tax cut bill was practically written by rich oil and gas executives. The oil and gas industry is experiencing a mini-boom here and its earnings are up so tax cuts are needed. Get it? That’s what passes for responsible governance in this place.

Republicans here bank on the fact that not enough people will see through their strategy or even care, and as long as Barack Obama remains president, they will remain in complete control of the government here. Taking away people’s retirement security while giving unneeded tax cuts to the oil and gas industry tells Oklahoma’s current political story all too well.

Unstated Intent

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Despite what some of its supporters claim, Oklahoma’s latest disingenuous anti-abortion law is about doing away with the procedure, not about ensuring the safety of women.

The anti-abortion ideologues here have obviously believed through the years that it’s okay to use deception and rhetorical subterfuge in their legislative strategy because of the supposed religious sanctity of their cause, but one has to question the moral validity of a movement that dare not speak its name.

Gov. Mary Fallin recently signed into law Senate Bill 1848, which basically requires that abortion-clinic physicians must have admitting privileges to a hospital within 30 miles of their facility. The bill actually states that one of the reasons for the new requirement is if “hospitalization of . . . a child born alive is necessary.”

State Rep. Randy Grau, an Edmond Republican and one of the sponsors of the bill, claims the bill is about the safety of women who have abortions, according to a media report. Let’s be clear that those who voted for the bill probably could care less about anyone seeking an abortion in the first place. This is about shutting down abortion clinics.

Even if we were to grant Grau a position of sincerity, here’s the simple logic that undercuts his logic: If an emergency situation arose during an abortion, an event that is extremely rare, the patient would be admitted to the closest hospital anyway by one of the hospital’s physicians.

The Oklahoma Medical Association opposed the bill, but on a limited basis, arguing “. . . we oppose legislation or regulations that would implement a standard of care or override a physician’s medical judgment.” That’s fine, but what about the rights of women who choose to have a legal and safe abortion? Shutting down abortion clinics directly affects the health of women here.

Tamya Cox, an attorney with Planned Parenthood of the Heartland, said two abortion facilities, one each in Oklahoma City and Norman, could be forced to close under the new requirements, according to an article in the Tulsa World. Another abortion facility in Tulsa is in compliance with the new bill, she said.

Cox said it can be difficult for doctors who perform abortions to get hospital admitting privileges because of the potential for negative publicity. Some hospitals also have religious affiliations that might compel them to refuse admitting privileges to physicians who regularly perform abortions.

The bill is part of the latest legislative strategy by the anti-abortion movement, which has already passed similar bills in four states, including Texas.

All these bills primarily impact low-income women who might not be able to afford to travel when seeking an abortion. This could lead to non-medically supervised abortions, which would, indeed, threaten women’s health and safety. Consequently, the bill could very well result in just the opposite of its stated intent.

Let’s hope the bill is challenged on constitutional grounds and is quickly discarded by the courts as another legislative error.

It’s easy for people to check out of the abortion debate because it’s so endless, but it really does impact all women. If religious fundamentalists are allowed to deny women basic rights to their own bodies through idealizing and sanctifying reproductive sexuality, then what else is next? Will they stop at abortion, at birth control? What other oppressive social controls will they deploy to prohibit women from making decisions about their own health, their own bodies?

Pursuing Publicity

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U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe, one of the world’s best-known skeptics of global warming science, weighed in recently with his typical hyperbole over a report warning that climate change could threaten our country’s national security.

The report, prepared by the CAN Military Advisory Board, a group of retired military officers, argues, “The nature and pace of observed climate changes—and an emerging scientific consensus on their projected consequences—pose severe risks for our national security.” It goes on to point out:

The projected impacts of climate change—heat waves, intense rainfall, floods and droughts, rising sea levels, more acidic oceans, and melting glaciers and arctic sea ice—not only affect local communities but also, in the aggregate, challenge key elements of our National Power. Key elements of National Power include political, military, economic, social, infrastructure, and information systems.

Inhofe, of course, wasn’t buying any of it. In response to the report, according to The New York Times Inhofe said:

There is no one in more pursuit of publicity than a retired military officer. . . . I look back wistfully at the days of the Cold War. Now you have people who are mentally imbalanced, with the ability to deploy a nuclear weapon. For anyone to say that any type of global warming is anywhere close to the threat that we have with crazy people running around with nuclear weapons, it shows how desperate they are to get the public to buy this.”

Note the ad hominem attack against retired military officers. This is coming from the ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee. Inhofe’s wistful Cold War memories have absolutely nothing to do with global warming or how we should respond to it. He can’t argue with evidence so Inhofe attacks and qualifies. So who is really seeking publicity and who is really “desperate”?

There’s a consensus among the world’s climate scientists that manmade carbon emissions, produced by the burning of fossil fuels, are causing the planet to warm at an alarming rate.

Inhofe, 79, is expected to easily win reelection this November. He represents a state in which the legislature just voted for permanent tax breaks for the oil and gas industry, and he has received $318,850 in campaign contributions from that same industry since 2009.

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