Let The Lege Begin

Image of Mary Fallin

I found Gov. Mary Fallin’s State of the State speech Monday somewhat less ideological than last’s year address, but it still contained the tired GOP tropes about cutting taxes and government that have decimated education funding here and prevented thousands of people from getting health insurance.

To her credit, Fallin didn’t overly stress this year how much Oklahoma had to teach Washington, an argument filled with holes and backed by no real evidence. In fact, if not for all the federal money and disaster aid flowing into this place, Oklahoma might not even be a viable entity.

Towards the end of her speech, which opened the 2014 legislative session, Fallin did claim:

Washington is leading this country in the wrong direction, but Oklahoma isn’t about to follow.

In fact, we can offer a model to the rest of this country of what sound, common sense, conservative governance looks like.

“Sound . . . conservative governance”? What about the 22.8 percent decline in per-student funding since 2008? What about our teacher shortage? What about the dilapidated state Capitol building? What about the state’s high incarceration rates? We actually lead the nation in female incarceration on a per capita basis, a dubious distinction. What about all the studies showing Oklahoma is an unhealthy state with medical access problems?

Of course, State of the State speeches are often little more than a rah-rah spectacle, filled with superlatives and applause lines, and, as we’ve seen in the past, they don’t necessarily lead to changes. What you hear in a State of the State speech is often what you don’t get at the end of a legislative session.

Perhaps, the most controversial element of Fallin’s speech was her support for cutting the income tax rate from 5.25 to 5 percent. This cut, if passed, would come as the state faces a $170 million budget shortfall. To pay for the cut and make up for the shortfall, Fallin wants more targeted agency cuts.

“Any business worth its salt can find five percent costs savings without crippling the services it provides,” Fallin said, but that statement ignores cuts to agencies in previous years. At some point, no business or family or government agency can perform effectively without adequate resources.

Fallin made the point that she wants to raise common education funding by $50 million, but her budget also calls for a $49.4 million cut to higher education and a $47.7 million cut for the Oklahoma Health Care Authority. The education systems’ increase and cut negate each other when viewed from a larger perspective about the state’s future. The cuts in health care and Fallin’s stubborn refusal to expand Medicaid under the federal Affordable Care Act lack basic compassion, especially given the amount of money the oil and gas industry is given in tax breaks here.

Let me be clear that I think the proposed income tax proposal, even though it’s small, is irresponsible at this time. The tax savings will be primarily accrued by the wealthiest people in the state while our education systems go underfunded and people go without medical care. College students, working families and those without health insurance would sacrifice so the richest people here could get richer.

The GOP tax cut plans fell apart last legislative session and resulted in a bill that obviously wasn’t going to pass constitutional muster. It may well be that Fallin’s proposal and other tax cut proposals are simple political posturing in an election year. We can at least hope that is the case and that it all implodes again this year.

Fallin’s speech gave state employees, many of whom have gone without raises for seven years, little to cheer about. This is what she said:

First, we should begin offering targeted salary increases to some state employees paid below market value. I have included money to do so within my budget.

Second, we should reform our current pay system to one that rewards performance over time served. Doing so will encourage better productivity and services.

And finally, new hires within the Oklahoma Public Employees Retirement System should be moved from an outdated, mid-20th century pension system and to the more portable and flexible 401k-style benefits used in the private sector.

Let me parse those sentences. Note that only “some” employees will receive raises. Why? State employees with long years of service should be especially wary of so-called performance-based pay. There are complicated state jobs that require a high level of education and a practiced skill set. Long-time employees should be appropriately compensated and that should include adequate financial recognition for years of service. Fallin and the GOP seem intent to demonize, at least subtly, employees with long-term service to the state.

The pension issue, which is expected to be a heated one this upcoming session, boils down to this point: Some key members of the GOP leadership, including Fallin and Oklahoma Treasurer Ken Miller, want to reduce retirement benefits for state employees. The only way they can probably do that politically is to only target new employees, but that will eventually put stress on the current system, and then all state employees could eventually face cuts unless the political landscape changes. Note that Fallin only said 401(k)-style pension plans are “more portable and flexible.” What she can’t say, of course, is that they pay better than standard pension plans.

Fallin did call for a bond issue to repair the Capitol building, which is a good idea. Most Democrats are in favor of this approach, but it was a dud last year among certain GOP factions.

The symbolism of a dilapidated and crumbling place of government seems lost on many Oklahoma Republicans, which hold commanding majorities in the House and Senate, along with all the statewide offices. Is this the year it all comes crashing down on them, literally and figuratively?