Will disparate interests lead to some type of legislative Grand Bargain in Oklahoma this year that includes an irresponsible tax cut, a reduction in workers’ compensation benefits for injured workers and a plan to codify delays in state infrastructure improvements?
Maybe so or maybe not, but conflating these different GOP initiatives seems not only like a recipe for political infighting but also just plain poor governance and lawmaking. Trading, say, a reduction in benefits for people losing their limbs on the job for a delayed but larger tax cut is a grim business. It’s also illogical and ego-based politicking unrelated to the specific consequences of legislation.
Struggling to find an agreement on a tax cut and what Republicans call workers’ compensation “reform,” the GOP bigwigs have essentially announced they plan to announce a deal next week that includes majority agreement on the two issues, along with the support of an eight-year, “pay-as-you-go” agreement to renovate some state buildings and infrastructure.
House Speaker T.W. Shannon, a Lawton Republican, said, “We just thought it made sense to make it an announcement altogether." Of course, there’s been no actual announcement yet. This is sort of an announcement about a pending announcement, which makes very little sense.
The principal players include Shannon, who wants to take the slow path to infrastructure improvement, Senate President Pro Tempore Brian Bingman, a Sapulpa Republican, who wants big changes in the state workers’ compensation system and Gov. Mary Fallin, who wants a tax cut, any tax cut it seems, to seal her GOP bonafides. The vested interests come complete, no doubt, with big and easily-bruised egos, or is that too much of an assumption?
Currently, on the tax-cut front, the Senate is negotiating House Bill 2032, a Fallin-supported measure that initially cut the top income tax rate from 5.25 percent to 5 percent next year without any offsets. The Senate, which had its own plan rejected by the House, then rewrote the bill. The new plan is to cut the rate to 4.95 percent, but not until 2015, and to sunset some tax credits.
A Senate plan to “reform” the state’s workers’ compensation system, contained in Senate Bill 1062, is now undergoing negotiations in the House, which is rewriting the measure. The bill is ostensibly about changing the system from a judicial process to an administrative process, but it also reduces benefits for those who get injured on the job. I wrote about it here.
So the Senate is rewriting the House’s tax bill and the House is rewriting the Senate’s workers’ compensation bill.
Meanwhile, Shannon’s infrastructure plan, House Bill 1910, which centralizes state property oversight and creates a long-term plan to renovate buildings, flies under the radar given the fact that the state Capitol building is crumbling to pieces before everyone’s eyes as Republicans announce their plan to make an announcement.
All these initiatives should be considered on their own merits without political tradeoffs unrelated to their purposes and consequences.
So here’s my own announcement of some common sense ideas: The tax cut should be put on hold because of the future loss in state revenue until the economy completely recovers from the Great Recession or until lawmakers get serious about overhauling the entire tax code. Any workers’ compensation bill that under the guise of “reform” severely reduces benefits for injured employees deserves to be defeated just for that reason alone, especially in Oklahoma. Why even implement a long-term, infrastructure renovation plan until the state Capitol building is repaired?
It might seem late in the game to comment, but I’ve had a difficult time wrapping my head around all the state support for a legislative bill that will allow the wholesale slaughtering of horses in the state and the sale of their flesh to other countries.
The measure, House Bill 1999, sponsored by state Rep. Skye McNiel, a Bristow Republican, has passed both the House and Senate by clear margins and might even be signed into law by Gov. Mary Fallin by the time this is published.
At its core, horse slaughtering seems abhorrent, whether done here or in Mexico. Horses are domesticated animals with a long history of work toil and loyalty, enshrined forever in American mythology. We ride on their backs. They literally carry our loads. They express affection for us.
Horses, after all, are not raised for the consumption of their flesh, but as, in many, many cases, pets, just as important or even more important to their owners because of their work capacity as a beloved dog and cat. We wouldn’t allow the wholesale slaughter of dogs and cats here and the sale of their flesh to other countries, would we? Why would our country sell “meat” to other countries that is basically considered taboo for consumption here?
Somehow that logic, as simple as it is, has become marginalized or deemed extreme in what debate happened during the consideration of the bill both inside and outside of the legislature.
But the logic does get at the arguments in favor of the bill, which go like this: There is an overpopulation of horses in the country and many people here now sell their old horses to Mexican and Canadian slaughter houses. Allowing horse slaughter plants here in Oklahoma will actually make the process more humane, and, oh yeah, but don’t say it too loud, horse dealers and the new slaughter plant owners here can make some good change while expressing their compassionate humanity.
Of course, the central premise that slaughtering is the best way to deal with horse overpopulation is heavily flawed. There are a myriad of ways to deal with the issue through basic horse ownership regulations.
So Trigger becomes European lasagna, but it’s good for the state economy, right? That’s just how much free market principles have become distorted in this country.
McNiel has even conceded her family, which owns a horse auctioning business, will benefit from the measure once Fallin signs it into law. The McNiel conflict of interest should have drawn skepticism in itself and the bill should have been killed, but there was no substantial outcry from her legislative peers on the issue. Maybe other legislators might want to pass their own laws one day to enrich their own families.
So it, as it so often does, comes down to money. But that doesn’t take into account that horses are often given medications in their lifetimes that could render their flesh dangerous for consumption. State Sens. Al McAffrey, an Oklahoma City Democrat and Constance Johnson, a Forest Park Democrat, eloquently brought up this point in legislative debate, but the concern was pretty much brushed aside with the argument that government meat inspectors will take care of all that. The bill passed the Senate on a 32-14 vote.
Supporters of the bill never really effectively addressed three other issues. One issue is the special relationship “the horse,” as an iconic animal, has to Oklahoma’s ties to frontier history and the state’s significant contemporary horse industry. Just maybe Oklahoma is one state that should jump off the horse-slaughter bandwagon and let other states do the butchering. Another issue is the admittedly slippery slope argument that some of all that horse meat is going to end up in our own food supply. The third issue is that a recent poll showed Oklahomans are decisively against horse slaughtering here.
Vegans and vegetarians might just argue that this issue shows just why we should all stop eating animals in the first place.
House Speaker T.W. Shannon continues to play to the GOP base here. Doesn’t he have better things to do? Does he feel politically insecure among Republicans?
This session, Shannon, pictured right, has sponsored House Bill 1908, which would use money from Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) to fund money for a campaign to promote marriage, and House Bill 1909, which would require so-called “able-bodied recipients” of food stamps, with some exceptions, to engage in at least 20 hours of work per week.
In other words, get married and get a job, folks. The problem here, of course, is that marriage is not always a panacea—it can actually be a detriment for many people in an abusive relationship—and not all people can find work right now, even part-time jobs. HB 1909 does make exceptions for people who have children or have disabilities, and it’s limited to people from 18 to 50.
Both bills have passed the House.
Shannon’s bills are just two of several bills this session playing into stereotypes about people who receive public assistance. The stereotype of the “welfare queen,” someone who cheats the system and has it easy while the rest of us work so hard, has been a stable mythology of GOP politics since President Ronald Reagan in 1976. It just isn’t true.
Shannon, a Lawton Republican, had this to say about HB 1909:
It’s time we encourage the value of personal responsibility. This measure will help able-bodied people break their addiction to government subsidies and let them focus on building a career as opposed to continually suffering under the wheel of poverty.
Note the phrase “addiction to government subsidies.” It sounds awfully close to former presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s campaign-ruining statement about the 47 percent of American people who “are dependent on government” and won’t “take personal responsibility.” It’s a political trope that obscures the very real truth of poverty, human suffering and income inequality in this country.
It’s not a surprise, but it’s still a shame that Oklahoma’s current House Speaker apparently feels a need to burnish his GOP bona fides on the backs of Oklahoma’s vulnerable.
Surely, there are better ways for him to strengthen and expand his political career beyond this petty, clichéd meanness.