With so much at stake for so many, it’s simply wrong that Republicans Gov. Mary Fallin and Oklahoma Treasurer Ken Miller are working together at the last minute to streamline Oklahoma’s pension plans this legislative session without allowing adequate input from stakeholders.
The Oklahoma Legislature adjourns at the end of the month, and leaders are even hinting at an earlier conclusion, but news reports are only now surfacing that Fallin and Miller have nearly reached a deal or developed a proposal.
What that deal might be is a little bit difficult to ascertain, but it’s highly probable that any proposal would try to reduce the state’s costs in some manner and, given the current ideology in power at the Capitol, possibly shift more costs to pension holders and/or reduce their benefits. At the state Capitol these days, “reform” always means less for ordinary Oklahomans and more for the state’s wealthiest citizens.
In other words, what won’t happen is the honorable thing, and that is for the state government to simply meet its basic commitment to adequately fund the state’s seven pension plans, which now face an $11 billion liability.
Two major contentious issues have emerged. One is to streamline the management of all the plans under one board, an idea that is adamantly opposed by the Oklahoma State Firefighter’s Association. The second one is to somehow begin to change the overall system for new workers from a defined benefit plan to a defined contribution plan, which should worry anyone with a sense of logic. How can you change the system in this way for new workers in a state like Oklahoma without jeopardizing the future benefits of those currently enrolled in one of the systems?
The Oklahoma Education Association has issued a legislative alert about the matter because teachers fall under the woefully underfunded Oklahoma Teachers Retirement System (OTRS), and, on a personal note, I’ve had discussions with current teachers who are extremely concerned they will face reduced benefits when they retire. (Full disclosure: As a professor, I currently pay into the OTRS.) Our state teachers, some of the lowest paid instructors in the nation, working in some of the most underfunded schools in the nation, SHOULD be concerned.
There is no question that the overall liability of the pension plans is a problem, but the real culprit has been the lack of funding for the plans over the years. Our legislators have been more interested in cutting taxes for the state’s wealthiest citizens than honoring basic commitments to teachers, first responders and social workers.
Even as Miller, in particular, talks about the dire need for pension change, the legislature is considering tax cuts spread out over two years beginning in 2015.
Miller, in one news report, claims he and Fallin have been transparent and should have some specific legislation to offer next week.
But why wait until the last minute? It appears to be a political tactic to prevent groups interested in the issue to mobilize in protest. Politics has always been a dirty business in Oklahoma, but this political move, if it happens, is extreme by any standards, especially given Fallin’s undying support for a tax cut.
The proposed legislative bills that want to make it more difficult to get a divorce in Oklahoma can be seen as misguided, nostalgic desires for a different era that is fortunately not coming back.
The family framework has changed and become more diverse in this country, but that obvious point is lost on some Oklahoma conservatives, who feel compelled to make divorce a more punitive process in an attempt to prevent it. That’s the underlying logic, and obviously it won’t work.
State Sen. Josh Brecheen, a Coalgate Republican, for example, has introduced the so-called “covenant” marriage bill, Senate Bill 105, that would allow Oklahomans to take an oath swearing that “covenant marriage is for life,” or rather allow them to enter into a marriage that can only be ended for a recognized legal cause.
At least Brecheen’s legislation offers a choice, although heavy pressure to enter into a convenant marriage could come from a person’s specific religious community.
House Bill 1548 by state Rep. Mark McCullough, a Sapulpa Republican, simply ends divorce on incompatibility grounds if there are minor children living at the home, the couple has been married for 10 years or longer or if either individual objects to it. In these cases, the divorce could only be granted for a recognized legal cause, such as adultery or spousal abuse.
In other words, let’s start a big fight between a couple even if there wasn’t one to begin with because, under this logic, divorce rates will dramatically fall, and all of us will live happily ever after, just like it didn’t happen in the 1950s.
Conservatives undoubtedly want us to see these bills and other related bills as sincere efforts to tackle the thorny issue of the so-called “breakdown” of the family, but they’re really just reflections of a narrow world view, most likely one dictated by right-wing religious beliefs.
Let’s be clear: All consenting adults should have the right to get married to whom they want and the right to get a divorce without added government-imposed conflict.
Here are some suggestions for conservatives worried about high divorce rates and families:
- Develop more extensive programs in our schools that would prepare students for the reality of marriage. Early marriage, for example, has been attributed to high divorce rates. Perhaps, in these programs, we could encourage students to actually wait longer until they marry.
- Destigmatize divorce. Divorce can take a toll on children, and some of that toll comes from a culture that sees divorce as “failure,” rather than change, a beginning or something just normal. Terms, such as “broken home” or the derogatory use of “stepchild,” add to the problem.
- Celebrate blended and single-parent families. Undoubtedly, divorce and contemporary society has changed the family unit, which is no longer exclusive to a married man and woman living in the same home with their children. Blended families created through remarriage or other circumstances, such as same-sex couples and their children, can be just as successful as traditional families. A calm single-parent home is much better than a two-parent home with an abundance of conflict and abuse. Blended and single-parent families can and do offer unique opportunities to children.
- Accept marriage equality for all. Let people marry the person they want to marry. How can conservatives extol the virtues of strong marriages when they want to deny it to the gay community? It’s a glaring contradiction.
The high divorce rate in this country is the result of major societal shifts that aren’t going to reverse themselves. We should deal with that reality when we think about divorce and families. Making divorce more difficult is a throwback to an archaic system that often denied people basic human rights while generating culturally sanctioned abuse.
In my last post, I gave my voting recommendations for the six state questions on the Oklahoma November ballot.
Among progressives, the only recommendation that created much discussion was my suggested “no” vote for State Question 765, which abolishes the Oklahoma Department of Human Services (DHS) and “adds a provision to the Constitution authorizing the Legislature to create a department or departments to administer and carry out laws to provide for the care of the aged and the needy.”
The supposed impetus behind the question is to restructure DHS by doing away with the current Commission for Human Services and allowing the governor, with state Senate approval, to appoint the department’s director. This new structure is contained in House Bill 3137, which was passed last legislative session, but is not specifically part of the measure voters will consider Nov. 6. It will go into effect if the measure is approved.
The fact that this new structure is not included in the measure and that the question itself actually abolishes DHS—essentially before it’s recreated again by legislation—is why I’m voting against SQ 765. How much of a constitutional mandate beyond legislative authorization will there remain that will ensure the state will “provide for the care of the aged and needy”? It seems unclear to me.
Here’s the ballot language:
The measure amends the Oklahoma Constitution. It abolishes the Oklahoma Department of Human Services, the Oklahoma Commission of Human Services and the position of Director of the Oklahoma Department of Human Services. These entities were created under different names by Sections 2, 3 and 4 of Article 25 of the Oklahoma Constitution and given duties and responsibilities related to the care of the aged and needy. The measure repeals these sections of the Constitution and consequently, removes the power of the Commission of Human Services to establish policy and adopt rules and regulations. Under the measure, the Legislature and the people by initiative petition retain the power to adopt legislation for these purposes.
The measure adds a provision to the Constitution authorizing the Legislature to create a department or departments to administer and carry out laws to provide for the care of the aged and the needy. The measure also authorizes the Legislature to enact laws requiring the newly created department or departments to perform other duties.
First, note the “abolish” language. The obvious question is why the entire agency has to be abolished before it can be recreated under a new structure. Is it simply a matter of legal form or is it a deliberate attempt to remove constitutional protection for vulnerable groups of people? Second, note how the legislature and the initiative petition process will now control what is referred to in the measure as “duties and responsibilities related to the care of the aged and needy.” Essentially, then, the very existence of DHS becomes part of Oklahoma’s grand political morass, which includes extremist movements antithetical to the “care of the aged and needy.” Third, the measure “authorizes” the legislature to create a new department, presumably DHS, but it doesn’t dictate that must happen.
Some will argue that I’m parsing the language too closely, and that HB 3137 takes care of the issue by not only recreating DHS but also adding four oversight panels, yet I’m not the only one who has questioned the ballot language.
House Speaker Kris Steele (R-Shawnee), for example, wrote Attorney General Scott Pruitt July 10 about the measure, asking “that the ballot title include language addressing the passage of HB3137 which reconstituted the Department of Human Services in statute.” Steele went on to write that he thinks “the language is necessary.” Obviously, Steele shared some of the concerns I and others have about the measure. Pruitt, however, dismissed Steele concerns, arguing in a July 11 letter the “specific language in HB 3137 is not a part of the constitutional amendment and is subject to change by this Legislature or subsequent legislatures.” That’s an important sentence—note “subject to change”—revealing the measure will mean DHS is left with weaker constitutional protection.
(The Steele and Pruitt letters can be found here.)
I’m a realist, and I know after the election, no matter what, DHS will exist and continue to do business, but I also wonder why, under the guise of reform, voters will be asked to do something as dramatic as “abolish” DHS. Think about that for a moment. I won’t vote to abolish DHS, even with all the official assurances and even with HB 3137 waiting in the wings.
The Commission for Human Services came under fire recently because of a lawsuit filed against the state on behalf of foster children under DHS care. That lawsuit has now been settled. Some people argued this last year that the commission wasn’t providing appropriate oversight to the agency. Does that mean we should abolish DHS by constitutional amendment? No.
Do I trust that our elected officials are not politicizing this issue and that we simply have to abolish DHS before it can exist under a new structure because of legal precedent or guidelines? No, frankly, I don’t trust that is the case, though some people supporting this measure may have the best intentions. In the end, putting all that aside, there’s really no argument. I will not vote to abolish a major state agency—even if only on a figurative level—that serves the less fortunate among us.