I’m glad that at least one statewide Republican leader has publicly asked for an actuarial study to determine the specific financial impact of a proposed and radical change to one state pension plan.
Oklahoma State Auditor and Inspector Gary Jones, writing in The Oklahoman/NewsOK.com, argues, “Any changes to the pension systems must be verified by an actuarial study to provide the impact those changes will have to the fiscal stability of the plan. It only makes sense to give the pension experts, CPAs and actuaries a chance to fix this problem. Working with these experts, legislators would be able to make the necessary, tough, informed decisions to find an actuarially sound solution.”
Jones’ point makes perfect sense, but some Republican leaders, such as Oklahoma Treasurer Ken Miller and Gov. Mary Fallin, both Republicans, are simply relying on reductionist rhetoric to move some new state employees into 401(k)-styled pensions without defined benefit payments and thereby putting one pension plan at risk.
Senate Bill 2120 and House Bill 2630 would require that new state employees under the Oklahoma Public Employees Retirement System (OPERS) go into a new 401(k)-styled plan. One major question that hasn’t been addressed fully by Miller and Fallin, according to some opponents of their plan, is how the old plan would still remain solvent without new participants.
Instead, we only hear dire cries of a pension crisis from them and the editorial board of The Oklahoman and how the new plan will be portable if employees leave their jobs. (Of course, that wonderful portability has nothing to do with how well the 401(k)-styled plan performs.) While it’s true that all of the state’s pensions face an $11 billion liability that liability has been reduced by some $5 billion just in recent years, and it will be reduced even more if state leaders simply provided appropriate funding and made wise financial decisions.
Jones, of course, who writes that the pension problems were created by “irresponsible, reckless and self-serving actions by the Legislature,” isn’t the only one calling for a financial study of the proposed change. David Blatt, director of the Oklahoma Policy Institute, has been raising this concern for months. How can you make such a major change within a financial system without calculating the impact in specific dollars? As state treasurer, Miller, in particular, should get behind conducting such a study.
Blatt has also pointed out that the change would harm the pension plan for current employees. He writes:
. . .the proposal to close off the system for new employees and shift these workers to defined contribution plans risks weakening OPERS and increasing the system’s unfunded liabilities. The reason is that pension plans depend heavily on investment earnings to grow their assets so as to be able to meet their obligations. As long as plans remain open to new employees, investment managers can invest for the longer-term because they have a mix of young, mid-career and retired workers.
In other words, if there’s less money to invest, there’s going to be smaller returns. Think of employees, in particular, who have been hired in the last ten years or so and are under the old plan. Think of employees hired under OPERS this year. Will the lack of new participants create a huge liability? Will political leaders, then, declare yet another emergency?
It becomes clear when viewed from a larger perspective that Republicans here and in other states simply want to reduce retirement benefits for government employees. They want to force a crisis. Of course, most Republicans won’t address the issue with that basic language.
Here’s the GOP game plan at the state level here and elsewhere: Cut taxes for rich people, give huge tax breaks to corporations, keep wages stagnant for rank-and-file state workers and cut their benefits, making them financially insecure.
The only thing that will stop the execution of that plan is if people stand up, voice their concerns and vote differently. But the neoliberalism (i.e., “free market” principles) model pits people against one another. If I don’t have guaranteed retirement benefits then why should you have them? The right-wing emphasizes the point. Consequently, no one gets decent retirement benefits. Meanwhile, the wealthiest top 1 percent snicker away from above.
The growing income inequality in this country is the only thing that’s not sustainable, not one pension program in one relatively small state.
It’s no secret that I hope Oklahoma City voters elect Ed Shadid as their mayor this coming Tuesday.
Shadid, a local physician, has innovative ideas about rejuvenating the city through a focus on helping the city’s diverse neighborhoods thrive, creating more walkable spaces, expanding public transportation and fighting crime by hiring more police officers.
As the Ward 2 Oklahoma City councilor, he has also proven himself to be a tenacious watchdog of taxpayer money through his questioning of MAPS 3 funds and projects.
He has attracted a huge mass of passionate followers who show up by the hundreds when he conducts public forums on issues such as urban sprawl. As a long-time area resident, journalist and college professor, I have never seen this much direct citizen participation in city issues, which Shadid has pretty much solely generated and cultivated.
Shadid has also received the endorsements of a wide range of organizations and people, from the local Fraternal Order of Police to the city’s firefighters’ union to local journalist Patrick McGuigan, who writes in the City Sentinel, “Shadid aims to establish a more inclusive government.” Republican Bob Dani, who leads the conservative High Noon Club and also endorses Shadid, writes in the Oklahoma Gazette, “I support candidates who are committed to fiscal responsibility.” Shauna Lawyer Struby, a progressive involved in sustainable living and health issues, also writes in the Oklahoma Gazette, “Shadid sets the standard for accessibility in public service by actively engaging with his constituents, meeting with people from all walks of life.”
Shadid’s campaign has generated intense interest among such diverse media outlets as The Lost Ogle, which conducted interviews with him and his main opponent Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett, and News 9 and the Oklahoma Gazette, which worked together in polling the race. The Red Dirt Report, a local media site, has relentlessly covered the race, often focusing on Cornett’s refusal to debate.
All this media energy is exciting and bodes well for Oklahoma City.
I’ve talked with Shadid a few times since 2011. He has a subtle and endearing charisma. He is honest about himself personally and his ideas. As someone who has written about Oklahoma politics since 1982, I’ve never encountered a politician with such sincerity and clarity. Not only has he never tried to hide his long-time recovery from drug addiction, he has repeatedly used his story to help others and local drug-treatment systems and efforts. For this he should be lauded; instead The Oklahoman vilified him by sanctimoniously demanding the release of decade-old divorce records, calling attention to his past.
I don’t think it’s a stretch to argue that Shadid has become a major symbol for many of us who have been attacked relentlessly here for simply trying to get our voices heard.
I have to agree with McGuigan that the city needs “a fresh voice.” Cornett, who has done some good things as mayor, has served now for 10 years. He has been mayor during a time of a downtown renaissance that has enriched some of the city’s powerful elites at the overall expense of the city’s neighborhoods. His refusal to debate Shadid and the other two mayoral candidates only reinforces the idea that he will continue in this direction as long as he remains the city’s top leader.
Urban blight still haunts the city, which needs more police officers, more walkable spaces and better public transportation. These issues, which Shadid has raised in his campaign, may not be as immediately exciting as a Kevin Durant slam dunk, but at the end of the day they are extremely important to our quality of life.
Shadid would be an outstanding, innovative mayor for all Oklahoma City residents.
A bill inhibiting embryonic stem cell research in the state and opposed by the Oklahoma State Medical Association has overwhelmingly passed the Oklahoma House.
On Tuesday, the House voted 73-14 to approve House Bill 2070, dubbed the Protection of Human Life Act of 2013.
Sponsored by Dan Fisher, an El Reno Republican, the bill would specifically ban “nontherapeutic research that destroys a human embryo or subjects a human embryo to substantial risk of injury or death” or “use for research purposes cells or tissues” obtained from such an embryo.
The main problem with the bill is that it could threaten medical stem cell research in the state while setting an anti-science precedent. While the bill specifically exempts in vitro procedures it also represents yet another gambit among the anti-abortion crowd to minutely focus attention on women’s reproductive systems and conception.
For example, the bill defines a human embryo for the purposes of the bill as “including the single celled stage, that is not located in the body of a female . . .” This language seems unclear. Is that intentional? Does this definition only mean an egg removed from a woman in a medical procedure? Could it have other ramifications?
I’m not trying to ascribe some broader intention here, but parse this definition:
Human embryo means a living organism of the species Homo sapiens at the earliest stages of development, including the single celled stage, that is not located in the body of a female . . .
The Oklahoma State Medical Association, according to a news report, opposes the bill because of the “troubling precedent for future research.” Here are some recent advances in embryonic stem cell research.
This is a bad bill that no matter what its larger implications in terms of defining a human embryo could inhibit bio-medical research here and once again make the statement that a majority of state residents reject scientific research. That's not good for the state.