Barring a major scandal or a sudden seismic change in the political landscape here, it appears Gov. Mary Fallin should coast easily to victory in her reelection bid.
At least that’s the prevailing view among national and local pundits, even though it might be difficult to handle for some Democrats, but there’s little to no evidence to dispute this basic political argument.
Fallin’s approval ratings, according to SoonerPoll, have gone over 70 percent in a red state that remains deeply hostile to President Barack Obama by a majority of voters. The anti-Obama hysteria alone, fueled by a complicit corporate media here, means any Democrat would have a difficult time defeating Fallin or winning any statewide office.
The governor also has a well-funded campaign along with political expertise and experience in running for statewide office. She has deep political connections and the ability to use her office to serve constituents in ways that could generate loyalty and support.
This doesn’t mean Democrats should just give up, of course, and state Rep. Joe Dorman, a term-limited Rush Springs Democrat, has declared his candidacy for his position. But can Dorman really make a dent in Fallin’s popularity? Does he have a chance?
Dorman faces two apparent obstacles right now.
One, he has to be viewed as a conservative Democrat, a legislator who, for example, has consistently opposed reproductive rights for Oklahoma women. While Dorman might capture the lesser-of-two-evil votes from Democrats, he’s unlikely to generate enthusiasm from progressives or even some moderates. This could hurt him in campaign fund raising efforts and voter turnout. If he turns to the right even more in his campaign, he risks losing any opportunity to show how he would lead the state any differently than Fallin.
Second, Dorman has now made his effort to build storm shelters in every Oklahoma school a major part of his political campaign. Dorman wants the state to use money from a business franchise tax to fund the shelters, a position that seems reasonable enough given last year’s devastating tornadoes. But now Fallin has announced an initiative to allow individual school districts to raise their bond debt capacities, if approved by voters, to fund the shelters, thus co-opting what has now become Dorman’s signature issue. The arguments between the two approaches probably rest on an extremely fine line for most voters, but that hasn’t stopped Dorman from pressing his point.
The Oklahoman editorial board calls Dorman’s arguments about the storm shelters “class envy,” which is supposed to mean something I guess, especially to its low-income conservative readers, but here’s the main issue: Every Oklahoma school needs a storm shelter. There are two plans to address this issue. Either plan could conceivably work.
I have long been a vocal proponent of getting storm shelters in our schools and other buildings, and I do agree that the franchise tax would be the easiest way to do it. But I can’t just dismiss Fallin’s approach. Even if Dorman’s proposal made it to the ballot, for example, the business community here, along with basic Republican support, would probably unite to try to defeat it. Imagine some prominent Oklahoman in a television advertisement arguing, over and over ad nauseam on our screens, to “just say no” to this state question. It has happened before.
Dorman still has time to mount a feasible campaign. He should reach out to progressive and moderate Democrats on issues such as education and health. Fallin’s proposed budget calls for a nearly $50 million cut in higher education, which could lead to higher tuition rates. Her budget also calls for a nearly $48 million cut to the Oklahoma Health Care Authority. Dorman should vehemently oppose such cuts as well as Fallin’s proposed tax cut that would primarily benefit the wealthiest people in the state. Voters want a champion, not a whiner.
There’s no particular reason for Dorman to drop the storm shelter issue, but I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that Fallin has politically out-maneuvered him on the issue, which was easy enough to do as an incumbent governor. That alone won’t win her the election, of course, but Dorman needs to shore up the support from his potential base, and that’s going to entail more than just talking about storm shelters.
A Republican lawmaker has introduced a bill in this year’s legislature that would force school districts to “respond appropriately and respectfully to differences of opinion about controversial issues” in science classes.
Similar to a bill that died in a committee last year, Senate Bill 1765 is a backdoor and somewhat disingenuous effort to sanction the dissemination of creationism in science classrooms while allowing attacks against the scientific validity of global warming with conservative political rhetoric.
It appears the bill, introduced by state Sen. Josh Brecheen of Coalgate, is virtually identical to last year’s failed SB 758, except for one important component: It doesn’t list the so-called controversies, such as the theory of evolution. In fact, the bill is so short and nebulous it’s difficult to see how it could possibly pass, but stranger things have happened in the Oklahoma Legislature.
First, let me be clear about the theory of evolution. The theory of evolution, in its most simplistic definition, only makes the argument that life forms change over time. It makes no claim about the existence of a God, and, in fact, it’s not a contradiction to believe in God and also evolution. Even the Catholic Church has noted this. It’s not controversial.
The theory of evolution is also a bedrock of scientific research and thought and has led to medical breakthroughs through the decades. The theory has no set mission to propagate itself as a belief or faith system. There’s no presupposition it is the antithesis of religious ideas about creation and life.
Some right-wing religious folks, however, continue to view evolution theory as a threat to strict Biblical ideas about creation, and some have supported a faux science, called intelligent design, to mask their religious intent. This is basically a deception. Brecheen’s bill, while it doesn’t mention the theory of evolution or intelligent design, can also be viewed as a deception or subterfuge because it doesn’t openly acknowledge its intent.
Brecheen has written openly about his criticism of evolution theory. The Lost Ogle, a widely popular blog in Oklahoma City and across the nation, quoted from newspaper articles written by Brecheen a few years ago. This is some of what Brecheen wrote:
If Darwin is right then I am free to be the strongest by eating all in my way (forget “love thy neighbor”). Additionally, we put zero thought to the psychological consequences of low self-esteem as people are taught their existence is as purposeless as their “brother and sister animals.” This produces a value system where protecting beetles is prioritized but unborn children are not.”
That’s a lot of ideas to slog through, but it does show where Brecheen is coming from.
As I mentioned before, specifically SB 1765 seems so vague that it’s more of a blatant invitation for future lawsuits rather than actual legislation. Who decides what constitutes a scientific controversy and at what point in the educational process? Administrators? Teachers? Students? It seems too obvious that any school district could face a major lawsuit if a teacher taught creationism or intelligent design in a science class under this proposed bill. Brecheen might hope that by taking out the specific language he can get the bill passed, but it probably makes it weaker on just a basic legal level.
The bill’s vagueness also raises the issue of how much credence should be given to political and religious arguments across the curriculum. If the “controversy” approach is right for the science classroom, then why not apply it to history and English classrooms, too? Some high schools, of course, have media-related or current event courses to discuss topics that might be politically controversial. That’s fine. But this “teach the controversy” approach to science or any core subject politicizes and distracts.
Students would lose the most if this bill somehow got signed into law. Some school districts could conceivably withhold crucial scientific information from students to avoid the controversy mess the bill creates. That’s not good for the state’s future.
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?