2013 Okie Funk In Review, Part Four

(Okie Funk is running excerpts this week of posts published throughout 2013. Click on the title to read the entire post. It’s difficult for me to believe, but Okie Funk is fast approaching its tenth anniversary in May. Thanks for following this site, and I wish you and yours a happy holiday season. I will resume regular posts on Friday.—Kurt Hochenauer)

Crisis Manufacturing, October 16, 2013
Image of Oklahoma State Capitol

When are more Oklahomans going to see that today’s Republicans manufacture false crisis after false crisis in an attempt to institute right-wing policies that harm the middle class and poor?

I’m not just referring to the GOP debacle in Washington where a small fraction of Tea Party conservatives are damaging the nation’s economy and holding the rest of us hostage by preventing simple procedural votes to fund the federal government and raise the country’s debt limit.

It happens here all the time, as well, from draconian abortion restrictions that only hurt poor women to tort reform that limits damage awards to major cuts in public education precipitated by tax cuts. All the major GOP initiatives come tagged with a breathless, obligatory crisis label, but they all add up to the same thing: Extremism and crisis language replace sound government policy.

The latest manufactured crisis by the GOP surrounds the state’s pension plans. According to Republicans, the current $11.6 billion liability of these plans for teachers, state workers and first responders are creating a crisis that must be dealt with during next year’s legislative session. Essentially, that means cuts in benefits for new employees, if not, eventually, for longtime workers.

But is there really a crisis? Haven’t the fiscal foundations of these plans actually improved in recent years?

In a recent blog post, David Blatt, director of the Oklahoma Policy Institute, argues, “It should now be time to officially declare the ‘Crisis in the Oklahoma State Pension Systems’ to be over.” Blatt carefully points out recent legislation that has actually made the state's pension plans more solvent.

I won’t rehash Blatt’s post here, but the overall point he makes is a good one.

It raises the question: Why are Gov. Mary Fallin and others targeting pension plans that seem to be gaining solvency?

Essentially, Republicans want to change the pension plans from defined-benefit plans, which guarantee set retirement payouts based on a variety of factors to defined-contribution plans, which don’t guarantee a set amount. This would most likely result in a reduction of benefits for state workers, including teachers.

Have Injection Wells Contributed To Earthquake Swarm, November 4, 2013

Image of wind turbines
The U.S. Geological Survey has determined that the large rise in the number of earthquakes in Oklahoma in recent years might be partly attributed to the wastewater disposal methods used in oil and gas drilling techniques.

In a statement released recently, the USGS noted there were one to three earthquakes of 3.0 magnitude or more from 1975 to 2008. Since that time, the state has averaged 40 earthquakes of 3.0 magnitudes or more on an annual basis, according to the USGS, which has labeled the increase a “swarm.”

This information has important implications for Oklahomans in terms of personal safety and building codes. Is it only a matter of time before a major earthquake hits Oklahoma and does major damage?

According to the USGS statement, “the analysis suggests that a contributing factor to the increase in earthquakes triggers may be from activities such as wastewater disposal--a phenomenon known as injection-induced seismicity.”

Injection wells for wastewater are part of the hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” drilling process. The wastewater from the fracking process and other drilling methods is injected into the ground, which could cause instability and stresses in rock layers. Studies in recent years have suggested a link between injection wells and earthquakes here and elsewhere in the world. Fracking has also been blamed for water contamination in some areas by environmental activists.

Should oil and gas companies be held accountable for the increase in seismic activity? Oil and gas companies have contributed much to the Oklahoma economy for decades, but could their drilling techniques lead to major destruction here? Will the end of the fossil fuel era be marked by damaging earthquakes?

Moral(e) Deflation, December 11, 2013

Image of T.W. Shannon

If state leaders intentionally set out to destroy what morale is left among state workers, then they couldn’t have done a better job.

After going seven years without an across-the-board raise, state workers have recently dealt with the following developments:

(1) Some Oklahoma agency heads have recently received astronomical raises. Those raises, according to media reports, include a $47,000 raise for OSBI Director Stan Florence, increasing his salary to $127,000, a $21,000 raise for Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Eric Pfeifer, increasing his salary to $256,000, a $40,000 raise for Tourism director Deby Snodgrass, increasing her salary to $126,000 and a $40,000 raise for Terri White, who heads the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services, increasing her salary to $173,000.

(2) Oklahoma House Speaker T.W. Shannon, pictured right, recently gave out more than $280,000 in annual raises to House staff, ranging in size from 2 percent to 30 percent. The largest raises went to House attorneys. Shannon indicated, through a spokesperson, that the raises were dictated by an internal study.

(3) A recent study, ordered by state leaders, showed that state workers’ salaries lagged behind their peers in comparable states by 6.4 percent. It also showed they lagged behind employees in similar private sector jobs here by 21.7 percent. But it also stated that state workers get more generous benefits than their peers and encouraged “more benefits cost sharing between the employer and employee,” or, in other words, cuts for workers. The study recommended 2 percent to 3 percent raises based on salary adjustments and performance. Meanwhile, Gov. Mary Fallin has warned agency heads that next fiscal year’s budget could be flat because of increased Medicaid costs. Where is the money for the relatively small raises, estimated at $41.1 million, even going to come from?