The Oklahoman

Snark Attack

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Sometimes it seems just too obvious why education funding has dropped in Oklahoma more than any other state in the nation since 2008.

In a Saturday editorial brief under its Scissor Tales column, The Oklahoman weighs in with a bit of snarky criticism about last week’s education rally at the state Capitol that drew around 25,000 people. So this is what passes for reasoned logic around this place:

More than a soupcon of self-righteousness was in evidence at Monday’s state Capitol rally for school spending increases. Participants felt justified in taking a day off (and in many cases forcing their students to take a day off) to provide a teachable moment for legislators, to use a trite expression. Kids don’t have the right to skip school to provide a teachable moment as they define it. Teachers apparently do. With so much crowing about how many people the rally drew, we wonder what the crowd count would have been had the rally been staged during spring break. The Legislature was in session most of that week. How about a Saturday rally that wouldn’t affect the teachable moments that take place in classrooms on most Mondays? Nah. That would depress the participation rate. Like the rest of us, teachers need their weekends free.

Let’s get this straight. The Oklahoman is pretty much arguing that the fact some “self-righteous” and “crowing” teachers took a day off to ask for more education funding is the important issue here, not the fact that school funding has dropped by more than 22 percent since the economic downturn in 2008. Note, as well, according to the newspaper, that those pesky teachers “need their weekends free,” even though I bet many of them were grading or preparing for classes Saturday and Sunday.

In a previous editorial, The Oklahoman opposed a legislative plan that would divert money from the Oklahoma Department of Transportation to boost school funding, but it offered no solutions to the problem of inadequate funding.

The newspaper, for years, has taken the position that since education funding receives the majority of the state budget it follows that somehow the state is doing the best it can. The newspaper has also argued that school administrators are never satisfied about the education money they receive from the state even though the premise has never and will never be tested.

Add to this the newspaper’s invalid argument that money has no bearing on student performance and its incessant argument that schools should be given more testing and assessment mandates even as their funding decreases. Throw in some basic snarky criticism of teachers.

These illogical arguments are at the core of the current assault on public education here and elsewhere in the country.

Newspaper Launches Full-Scale Attack On Shadid

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It should be obvious to anyone now that The Oklahoman has launched a full-scale political attack against Ward 2 Councilor and mayoral candidate Ed Shadid, using both its news columns and editorial page.

First, the newspaper demanded through its attorney and editor that a judge unseal Shadid’s divorce records, a divorced filed in 2004 that has now been resolved amicably. Both Shadid and his ex-wife agreed to seal the records to protect their minor children from contentious claims typically made in divorce cases.

The divorce records, once unsealed, show that Shadid, a local surgeon, once smoked pot and did harder drugs a couple of times before he entered a rehabilitation center. Shadid had openly discussed these issues for years so that information was extremely public anyway. The Oklahoman, of course, played this information up as if they had somehow scooped other media outlets and tried to cast Shadid in the most negative light possible.

The newspaper intentionally did this with its leadership fully aware of the argument that such sensational coverage of someone’s prior drug use—remember, it was primarily pot—could have a chilling effect on anyone here in recovery who wants to share their story publicly to help others.

Next, of all things, the newspaper went after Shadid for his city election voting record. The point was that Shadid has not voted in city elections as much as his election opponent Mayor Mick Cornett. Again, Shadid has long been open about how he became politicized in the last several years and decided to become part of the political solution in his community. There’s really no story here, except for what has become a common journey for many people from political apathy to political activism. Yet The Oklahoman sensationalized the information by delivering it in accusatory and biased terms. The headline on NewsOK.com read: “Shadid voted in few Oklahoma City elections in contrast to mayor.” Does it get clearer than that in terms of which candidate the newspaper supports for mayor?

Then, the newspaper published a distorted editorial criticizing Shadid for leading a grassroots group that has launched petition drives to place questions on the ballot related to stopping construction of the convention center contained in MAPS 3.

No one would dispute that the newspaper is entitled to its opinion on the issue, but the editorial contained huge omissions related to the issue. Shadid and others believe that voters were misled about the need for a hotel attached to the convention center. That hotel could cost taxpapers an extra $200 to $300 million. Would voters have approved MAPS 3 knowing this was the case? The newspaper ignored this issue in its editorial.

The newspaper also ignored the issue that some experts believe expensive, large convention centers with adjacent hotels are now not financially viable, especially in markets such as Oklahoma City. This was not mentioned in the editorial either The editorial simply argued in the most basic terms: “Vonvention center good; Shadid bad.”

Fittingly, when the Oklahoma City Council recently voted to NOT ask the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce to release a previous study related to the convention center that could shed light on these issues, the newspaper remained silent on its editorial page. Shadid, of course, voted to ask for the study’s release, arguing for transparency.

The Oklahoman has a long history of applying a double standard to politicians and distorting the news to further corporate interests and the careers of ultra-conservative leaders.

Here’s something to note in this regard. Continental Resources CEO and billionaire Harold Hamm and his wife, Sue, are going through a divorce. Hamm is politically involved in the state and elsewhere, serving as an energy advisor for Mitt Romney’s failed campaign and leading Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt’s re-election effort. Both Romney and Pruitt, of course, are Republicans.

Just a cursory look through a summary of Hamm’s divorce files shows the term “sealed document” more than 100 times.

The newspaper hasn’t brought up this issue even though Hamm, an obvious public figure, has stepped into state and national politics, obviously trying to influence voters to elect conservative candidates he supports. Don’t the voters have a right to know the issues in Hamm’s divorce just like in Shadid’s divorce? With all the money probably at stake in Hamm’s divorce, wouldn’t it at least be an interesting news story? Where’s that “journalistic” outrage now?

The newspaper’s attacks on Shadid about his divorce records were cloaked in sanctimonious language about “freedom of information.” Don’t believe it for a second. The Oklahoman has launched a deliberate attack on Shadid because he challenges the status quo. These types of sustained political attacks by the newspaper have failed in the past. Let’s hope that happens again.

Beware: Pension Cuts Loom For State Employees

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Oklahoma teachers, correction officers, firefighters and state employees beware: Conservatives here are going to push for major changes in your pension plans next legislative session, and it will almost certainly result in reduced benefits.

The specific plans haven’t been developed or, at least released to the public, but the main push will be to change the various state public pensions from defined-benefit to defined-contribution plans.

The defined-benefit plan guarantees a certain monthly amount of money for retirees. The defined-contribution plan doesn’t guarantee a certain payment amount, and it pretty much forces people to rely on investment bankers to determine how they will survive in retirement, if retirement will even be a possibility for state workers in coming generations.

Will those workers with long-time employment histories with the state still be able to retire under the defined-benefit plans? I suspect the answer to that would be probably yes, in most cases, but the change will begin reducing the money pool in the defined-benefits plans, thus precipitating an eventual crisis that will lead to even more cuts. This is just the first effort of cuts. If Republicans continue to hold super majorities in the House and Senate and retain the governor’s office, even more pension cuts are in store for state employees.

A group calling itself Keep Oklahoma’s Promises is opposing the major change in the pension plans.

The state’s pension plans currently have a collective $11 billion liability because through the last few decades state legislators, Republicans and Democrats alike, have failed to fund them appropriately. Gov. Mary Fallin and Oklahoma Treasurer Ken Miller have used the liability concept to apply their conservative “free-market” ideology to the problem. Meanwhile, the state legislature majority has been obsessed in recent years with trying to pass tax cuts for the state’s wealthy while not doing enough to ensure someone who teaches for 30 or 40 years in this state can have a modest but secure retirement income.

Rest assured that any changes in the state’s pension plans will absolutely lead to reduced benefits for future retirees. Anti-government conservatives will try to obscure this basic fact through rhetorical subterfuge about “reform” and “saving the system for future employees” while also using all the reductionist GOP clichés about limited government in vogue at the time they try to sell benefit cuts.

Let’s also be clear: If you are employed by the state and currently fall under a defined-contribution pension plan, and you vote for a Republican in upcoming state elections, you are most likely voting for less money for yourself and your family. That’s not ideology, or even, really, a partisan claim. It’s just a basic fact.

The assault on state pension plans throughout the country is the result of a conservative ideology that wants to deepen the vast disparity in wealth between the richest Americans and the middle class and poor. Conservatives want to cut taxes for rich people while reducing benefits and salaries for the backbone of this country’s workforce, which includes educators, first-responders, prisons' staff, social workers and those who maintain our public streets and infrastructure.

This anti-humanity ideology was perfectly expressed recently in a brief editorial by The Oklahoman, which, of course, supports reducing retirement benefits for state employees. In response to the argument the average state retirement benefits are modest, about $20,000 a year, the unidentified editorial writer claimed:

Reality check: Many Oklahoma private-sector workers would love such “modest” benefits. Heck, most would take any pension plan, because they don't have one now.

Heck, note this reality check: Essentially, the editorial’s logic concludes that everyone should do without a pension plan. The editorial is certainly NOT advocating for better funded or more pension plans for private-sector workers to match the modest benefits of state workers.

Heck, the editorial is also asking implicitly, what benefits can we take away from all public or private-sector workers once we start the spiral of back and forth cuts between the two groups? Here’s the conservative trick: Now that the public employees are facing cuts the private-sector employees should also face cuts. Or vice versa, and it goes on and on, until there’s nothing left of the middle class.

Right-wingers will accuse me of hyperbole and “alarmism” in the above paragraphs so let’s reduce it to an understandable formula. In the national pension debate, conservatives, such as the editorial writers at The Oklahoman, use the formula that since Worker A doesn’t have as much in benefits as Worker B, then Worker B should have his/her benefits cut, NOT that Worker A should receive an increase in benefits.

What the newspaper doesn’t address in the editorial is that many state employees have large chunks of money taken out of their paychecks to pay for a portion of the pension costs. The editorial also concludes the current system isn’t sustainable, but it really is. The state legislature just needs to appropriate additional money to it.

The ultra-conservative newspaper also favors cuts to Social Security as well, which means its editorial writers probably don’t even believe in retirement as a concept anymore, except for the wealthy, of course.

One of the major job tradeoffs for many state employees is the exchange of a higher salary and higher take-home pay than they might get in the private-sector for, as I mentioned before, a modest but secure retirement. (Many state workers haven’t received an across-the-board raise in several years.) This tradeoff is often openly acknowledged in state workplaces and is a firmly embedded idea among public employees everywhere. Conservatives want to take that tradeoff away so they can reward wealthy people through tax cuts.

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