Gov. Mary Fallin’s attempt to make a group of impoverished refugee children fodder for her reelection will surely test the limits of the Oklahoma electorate’s cravenness and ignorance.
Fallin has been greeted with bad news recently when it comes to her reelection bid. First, SoonerPoll found that her approval rating has plummeted by approximately 20 points over the last year. Second, a Rasmussen poll shows she and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Joe Dorman are locked in a tight election with Fallin leading Dorman by a slim 45 percent to 40 percent edge. Until now, political pundits have considered Fallin, a state Republican who has never lost an election, virtually invincible in her reelection bid.
Fallin’s response to this bad news has appeared to be to distance herself from the draconian, high-stakes testing policies of outgoing and controversial state schools Superintendent Janet Barresi and to arouse conservative anger over the housing of some 1,100 Central American children at Fort Sill near Lawton. The children are part of an exodus of younger people trying to escape the violence of their countries, which include Honduras and Nicaragua.
The Fallin campaign has actually launched a petition drive to close the Oklahoma facility housing the children. The petition language appeal is couched in typical flaming rhetoric, such as “illegal alien minors,” and it, of course, blames President Barack Obama for the situation when, if fact, a policy initiated by former President George Bush has exasperated the problem of deporting the children. This is also a political refugee issue, not an immigration issue, created by years of immoral Central American policy based on U.S. pseudo-colonization interests. Both Republicans and Democrats have shaped this policy, which is based on exploitation and greed.
So, in effect, Fallin is asking her supporters and potential supports to do two things: (1) Condemn a group of children who are merely trying to escape certain death, and (2) completely ignore the actual bipartisan facts of why the children are here and why they can’t just be immediately deported back to their countries.
Fallin is appealing to the cravenness of Oklahomans to simply not care about the welfare of children in general and the ignorance of people to just randomly condemn Obama for what can be construed as much as a Republican problem as it is a Democratic problem.
Will it work? These Republican “group hate” appeals have certainly worked here in the past when it has come to immigration issues. The state’s cheerleaders like to make a big deal out of how nice everyone is here, but the reality is the state is filled with people who are terribly prejudiced and have mistrust of “the other,” which, in this case, is a group of poor children with brown skin.
Still, surely a majority of the state has grown past these racist ideas, especially in the last ten years or so. One wants to think this, of course, but racism is not quantifiable here. Fallin’s campaign tact, as racist as it can publicly get, is probably as good as any indicator where the state currently stands when it comes to tolerance. If she starts to move up in the polls, look for more group hate appeals. It’s clear, given this recent political move over the young refugees, Fallin plans to make her campaign as little about state issues as possible.
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.
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.