Legislature

Not So Fast

Oklahoma State Capitol

A couple of close friends brought up some arguments about my recent post condemning a new requirement that forces divorcing parents to take a class that deals with the effect of divorce on children while suggesting reconciliation as an option.

My overall point is that the new law, passed by the legislature and signed by Gov. Mary Fallin, is simply a personal intrusion and could have unintended consequences. Could the requirement intensify an already intense situation during a divorce?

One friend, who is involved in family law, made the point that many couples could benefit from the class and consequently he sees no problem with it. He deals with the reality of the issue everyday. He might agree with me on some abstract level, but he also knows that some divorcing people need to know basic information such as this: If you are ordered to pay child support, you really must pay child support. What’s wrong with that?

Many divorces go smoothly, he notes, but some turn into wars. A class designed to defuse tension or refocus it on helping children cope can he helpful, he suggests, noting such classes already exist in some counties.

My other friend, who has been a long time advocate for decreasing domestic violence here, wondered why I hadn’t mentioned in the post that Oklahoma has a high rate of violence committed against women. Just last year, for example, a report showed that Oklahoma ranked third in the nation in the number of women killed by men. Many women seek divorces to get out of abusive situations for themselves and children, she said, and anything that creates an obstacle for that to happen should be carefully considered.

The new law, however, does only apply to couples divorcing on grounds of incompatibility. But her point is well taken, and is perhaps the most crucial issue in the entire debate.

Overall, divorce is an important and serious issue in Oklahoma. I’ve written about the issue for many years, and I still contend deep-seated conservative cultural factors here prohibit people from growing up with realistic ideas about marriage. Changing that culture through education is where the answer remains.

I also believe our notions of what now constitutes a family has been broadened for the better. Same-sex marriage has been legally sanctioned in places throughout the country and this will continue despite minor setbacks along the way to equality. The advent of same-sex marriage has the potential to change how we might view our overall political structures and institutions and even our own cultural identities.

Personal Intrusion

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A new law requiring a counseling class for divorcing couples with children is yet another unnecessary conservative-backed personal intrusion into people’s lives here.

The main purpose of the law seems to be to remind divorcing parents that they are about to commit an atrocious and horrible act that’s sure to hurt their children and then to push the couple to reconcile for their sake. The bill seems based on the logic that people should stay in lousy marriages for the sake of their children. Wasn’t that myth destroyed a long time ago?

Gov. Mary Fallin signed into law this week House Bill 2249, which requires parents divorcing on the grounds of incompatibility take a class that, among other things, focuses on “short-term and longitudinal effects of divorce on child well-being” and “reconciliation as an optional outcome.”

In other words, the class will undoubtedly try to shame a divorcing couple over how they are supposedly hurting their children and then try to get them back together. Here are some questions: What if the couple doesn’t want to even talk about reconciliation? What if only one of the spouses wants to talk about reconciliation, and he/she uses the class as a way to harass the other spouse? (This will surely happen.) What if the couple has been separated for a long time and the children are already adjusted?

Let me throw out a suggestion: People who stay in terrible marriages for the sake of children often have as many anxieties and regrets as people who divorce and establish new blended families. I don’t have any statistical evidence offhand that this is the case, but growing up in a household war zone or in a home without expressions of love and compassion takes it own little nasty toll on children.

I will grant that the new law might seem innocuous and benign to some people. Pay for and complete the class and go about the business of getting a divorce. No big deal, right? But this class could create even more emotional tension between couples during a time period of great stress and anxiety. It presupposes that reconciliation is the answer.

For a long time, Oklahoma has had one of the highest divorce rates in the country, providing the fuel for the social-conservatives who want to engineer our lives with their own narrow worldview abut the sanctity of marriage. Oklahoma is a deeply, right-wing religious state and thus many of our children here grow up with false, idealistic ideas and expectations about marriage and having children. They are taught to find a “soul mate,” not a friend, a “spiritual family leader,” not a partner, “a wife to honor,” not a confidante. A child is a “blessing,” not a responsibility. It’s all coated in religious symbolism and made manifest by the grand wedding spectacle. It has very little to do with the day-to-day life of living with someone and raising children together.

Moreover, children in Oklahoma can get legally married at 16 with their parents’ consent, but we still absurdly deny same-sex couples who have been in stable relationships for years any opportunity at all to legally sanction their partnership, a prohibition that will hopefully change in the near future because of federal court rulings.

We need to one day finally and completely remove the stigma of divorce here and mandate more realistic sex and home-life/home-economics education classes—including discussions about different sexual orientations—in our public schools. That would do far more to lower our divorce rate than haranguing stressed out couples about reconciling.

Budget Woes A Stinky Mess

Image of Oklahoma State Capitol

The state’s financial situation right now is a confusing, contradictory mess.

Set aside, for a moment, the state’s pressing needs, from more school funding to repairs to the crumbling Capitol to an increase in prison guards. Take a look at the revenues, and scratch your heads like everyone else when you realize the state may face mandatory budget cuts soon.

Oklahoma has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the country, the oil and gas business is booming here and areas in the state, such as downtown Oklahoma City, are brimming with new construction and other projects that will create economic growth. Yet Oklahoma’s general revenue fund allocations were down 1.7 percent in April from the previous year and are now down 4.7 percent for the entire fiscal year. If allocations in May and June are down as well and it reaches an overall 5 percent decline or more, that might precipitate mandatory across the board cuts to most state agencies. The state currently faces a $188 million budget shortfall.

The reason for the revenue drop is complicated conjecture, according to the Oklahoma Policy Institute, but the bottom line seems to be it’s partially due to an overall drop in corporate taxes, growing tax credits for businesses and continued tax breaks for the oil and gas drilling process known as “fracking.” There are other reasons, as well, such as a rise in funding for road and bridge infrastructure, but at least taxpayers are getting something tangible out of it.

What we’re witnessing in Oklahoma is a large and noteworthy exchange of money—at least on a per capita basis—from public institutions, such as schools, to corporations and businesses. This fits neatly with conservative Republican ideology, and, of course, the government is dominated by Republicans right now, but it’s ultimately self-defeating in a state with a myriad of historical and contemporary problems.

Amid the budget woes, a new idea has emerged to tie an increase in education funding to an increase in revenues. The education-funding increase will probably be contradicted by both the ongoing tax breaks for corporations and the income tax cut recently passed by the legislature and signed into law by Fallin.

It makes no sense to pass tax cuts and then tie budget funding increases to revenue growth unless it’s an intentional act of subterfuge to appease voters by claiming dual, opposing arguments in any given political issue.

Meanwhile, concrete is falling through the ceiling at the dilapidated state Capitol building, which reeks of raw sewage in some areas. The building needs $160 million in repairs, but legislators are refusing to float a bond issue to pay for them. The symbolism is too obvious. Things are falling to pieces in Oklahoma, and it stinks.

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