There remains a concerted effort among some top Republican leaders here to reduce retirement benefits for new state workers and teachers, and it’s not clear how it could ultimately affect those currently paying into the pension system or those already retired.
The plan, advanced by Oklahoma Treasurer Ken Miller and endorsed by Gov. Mary Fallin, is to put new hires on a defined-contribution or 401(k)-styled plan, essentially ending pensions for all new workers, except for police officers and firefighters. One option under review is for the state to then pay less money into these plans, according to Miller.
But, as Republican state Auditor and Inspector Gary Jones puts it, as reported by NewsOK.com, the “numbers don’t add up” in such a plan when it comes to meeting the obligations of the current pensions, which have a collective $11.4 billion in unfunded obligations.
Theoretically, all state workers and those already retired could face cuts in future benefits if the unfunded obligations can’t be met. How will the state meet those obligations if new workers aren’t paying into the system? That’s the most important question.
Let me be blunt: This plan, as it has been described so far, has the potential to eventually reduce retirement benefits for all state workers and teachers and even those now retired who receive state pensions. Some may see that statement as overly dramatic, but Miller’s plan has never precisely shown how the older plans will remain solvent as the state moves to the new system.
It also raises the obvious ethical question: Will it be fair for new workers and teachers to receive reduced retirement benefits in order to pay for the unfunded liabilities and more generous benefits of the pension system for more experienced workers if that’s actually Miller’s plan? It certainly could lead to moral problems and resentment.
Some version of the plan will presumably get considered by the Oklahoma Legislature next session.
Fortunately, Jones has added a new dimension to the debate and has asked some important questions. He recently pointed out, as I’ve pointed out for years, that the main culprit when it comes to unfunded liabilities are legislators who haven’t appropriately funded the state’s pensions through the years and have made other bad decisions, such as unwisely boosting the pension benefits of 500 to 600 elected officials in 1998. It’s not the fault of workers or teachers.
There’s also the question whether the $11.4 billion in unfunded liabilities actually constitutes a major crisis as Miller and some others contend. The unfunded liabilities have actually declined from $16 billion since 2010 because of some good legislative decisions and investments. Perhaps, then, all the state actually needs to do is contribute more money into the pension systems and continue to make good investments. Why all the breathless, Chicken-Little language?
Miller seems to at least partially base his argument for reducing retirement benefits on this premise: Workers in the private sector are “lucky” if they even have a retirement plan so state workers should just accept cuts. It’s a race to the bottom, a standard conservative tactic to enable further tax cuts for the wealthiest in our country.
Thus, says Miller, the new system would be “fairer to the taxpayers … , most of whom have an employer-sponsored defined contribution plan, if they are lucky,” according to a media report on the issue.
Miller also wants to consolidate the state’s seven pension plans under one board to save money, which seems innocuous enough, but Jones, according to NewsOK.com, points out the move could lead to a loss of “a lot of expertise and a lot of knowledge,” which could lead to a decline in investment returns. It’s not as simple as Miller seems to want it to be.
As I’ve written before, there has always been an implicit understanding among the country’s rank-and-file government workers and teachers, especially in low-paying places like Oklahoma, that they trade off their lower salaries for a certain amount of job security and halfway decent benefits. Miller’s plan, as it has been presented so far, doesn’t honor that basic compromise.
Oklahomans who oppose the A to F grading system in assessing the state’s schools might draw a lesson from a contentious public school board election Tuesday in Bridgeport, Connecticut.
Bridgeport voters elected a slate of school board candidates Tuesday that essentially look skeptically at the nation’s school privatization reform movement. Privatization efforts often come after the installation of draconian school-quality assessment systems, such as the A to F system now used in Oklahoma, which are overly dependent on student test scores and have little meaning.
It’s 1,500 miles away from here, and it’s just one school district, but Bridgeport has lessons for those of us here and elsewhere that want to stop the so-called school “reform” movement that’s really about busting teacher unions and privatizing public education.
For now, Bridgeport schools are managed by Paul Vallas, who has overseen schools in New Orleans, Philadelphia and Chicago. Vallas, according to critics, emphasizes too much student testing, and some class sizes in Bridgeport are now too large to enable student learning. Other critics argue Vallas is part of a larger, corporate-sponsored reform movement, which includes Michelle Rhee and Michael Bloomberg. On Tuesday, members of the Connecticut Working Families Party became a majority voting bloc on the school board, which could mean Vallas will lose his job.
I won’t go into the Bridgeport case more specifically, which has many twists and turns, because so much has been written about it. Here’s a thorough Salon.com article about the issue. Many educators believe the Bridgeport situation has national implications.
The A to F grading system for Oklahoma schools, instituted by schools Superintendent Janet Barresi, has generated a lot of its own controversy recently. Some state school superintendents think the system is flawed and have voiced their opposition to it. They are backed by a study conducted by Oklahoma State University and University of Oklahoma researchers, who found the grading system “has very little meaning and certainly cannot be used legitimately to inform high-stakes decisions.” Gov. Mary Fallin recently jumped into the debate and defended the system while trying to silence its critics.
Lost in the political squabbling and even the impeccable university research over A to F in Oklahoma are the larger implications of this new corporate-sponsored school reform movement that privileges excessive testing, rote memorization, charter schools and vouchers for private schools while attacking teacher unions. The people who support this movement are often the same people who support tax cuts that lead to the defunding of public education, which leads to fewer teachers and larger class sizes, which, in turn, lead to lower test scores and school rankings. Oklahoma has the dubious distinction of cutting funding for education on a percentage basis more than any other state since the Great Recession.
According to Diane Ravitch, a former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education who is a critic of the privatization movement, Bridgeport is an example in which people have successfully fought back against the so-called reformers. Her book, Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America's Public Schools, points out the myth of the “failing” public school system, and she criticizes radical for-profit, free-market approaches to education.
The A to F ranking system for schools is a part of the strategy for the school privatization movement: Show the so-called failure of schools, then implement privatization policies. This ulterior motive is disguised under the rhetoric of “reform” and “accountability.”
Ravitch, in response to the A to F grading system in Oklahoma, writes, “When we regain our collective common sense, we will recognize school letter grades as a truly stupid idea, concocted to set schools up for failure and privatization.”
So Bridgeport should give people here who oppose the A to F system encouragement that they can organize successfully and get their voices heard, at least at the school district level. Simply put, people should elect candidates to school boards or state offices that oppose it. Bridgeport could also mean that the privatization movement in education has lost steam, and that’s hopeful news as well.
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?
These are not simply hyperbolic questions, and the mounting evidence suggests they need to be discussed.
The USGS noted that Oklahoma has always been prone to earthquakes, but “the increased hazard has important implications for residents and businesses in the area.” The USGS pointed to the 5.6 magnitude earthquake near Prague in 2011, and recent earthquakes just east of Oklahoma City that measured 4.2 and 4.4. There were several earthquakes in central Oklahoma on Saturday and at least one on Sunday. I think it’s fair to argue that the large increase in earthquakes is an alarming issue here in Oklahoma, and it’s probably not getting enough attention. Will it take a major earthquake to wake up people?
As I mentioned, there is now a growing number of studies that suggest injection wells and fracking can be tied to an increase in earthquakes. If the oil and gas industry here and elsewhere will not respond to this obvious dilemma with solutions, then the state and federal government should step in to protect people and their property.