The Norman Transcript

April 12, 2014

Does Oklahoma need advice from Texas?

By Wallace Collins
The Norman Transcript

NORMAN — Does Texas have a lock on “brilliant minds”? The names of Texans like Congressman Louie Gomert, Sen. Ted Cruz and that other guy ... I can’t think of his name ... oh yeah, Rick Perry come to mind very quickly. Add to that infamous list another Texas representative, Lyle Larson, who apparently felt the need to insert his opinion into politics north of the Red River.

Speaking of the Red River, I noticed in the recent guest column by Larson, he was careful not to mention the memorandum of understanding signed by Govs. Perry and Mary Fallin, in which Fallin gives full authority to Texas to take water from Lake Texoma. People along the river and lake look at the dry shoreline and low water level and grumble about excessive water use by Texas.

In the aforementioned column, this Texas “foreigner” brags about how Fallin is balancing the state budget. Evidently he doesn’t know that, unlike some states, Oklahoma has a balanced budget provision in our State Constitution, so every Oklahoma governor has balanced the budget.

Larson brags about Fallin cutting taxes, but what he also must not know is that she also has cut funding for education by 23 percent, the deepest cut in the nation, and this is after new money has been appropriated for education, so this in not something to brag about, in my estimation.

As an outsider, he evidently doesn’t realize that taking advantage of our natural resources would include wind energy, and that the Republican leadership in Oklahoma wants to deny the use of wind energy east of Interstate 35.

Being from Texas, how could he know about the problems in Oklahoma’s seven veterans centers when he commended Fallin for an overhaul of the War Veterans Commission?

He gave Fallin credit for addressing “rampant neglect” at the centers, but he could not know of the problems with doctors that have been reprimanded, cited for sexual abuse and other shortcomings, but who are still working at the Norman center and possibly other places. What has been done to correct the low pay and high turnover rate of the caregivers at the veterans centers?

Again this year, Fallin and the legislature have told these hard-working, underpaid state employees to wait another year for a well-deserved pay raise. Apparently, waiting eight years is not long enough.

Should I consider it strange that this Texas soothsayer failed to mention that his “champion,” Fallin, turned down $54 million in federal money (really, our tax money, anyway) that would have provided health care for more than 144,000 Oklahomans, which would also include about 120,000 people suffering from mental illness?

Fallin then spent an additional $500,000 of our tax money to ask for advice from a Republican friend, who said take the federal money. Therefore, she wasted an additional half-million of our dollars that could have gone to education or other good uses.

I’m sure that to the residents of Purcell, Lexington and other area towns who are affected by the closed bridge between those two towns, the claim of instituting a “most aggressive plan to replace structurally unsound bridges” is a little insulting. By continuing to cut income for the state, Fallin has put off, for far too long, the much needed improvement to our roads, bridges and highways, including turnpikes.

Now that the James Nance Bridge issue is front and center, the governor is making an attempt to patch the bridge but knows that the real solution is to replace the aging structure that was built in 1938. Unfortunately, the current replacement cost estimate is about $55 million and would be put off for about another eight years, long after Fallin leaves office.

Since the Texas legislator claims to know so much about Oklahoma politics, I can’t help but wonder why he did not mention the fact that Fallin and state Superintendent of Public Instruction Janet Barresi concluded that it best served Oklahomans with disabilities to close the small agency that dealt with those issues, the Assistive Technology Agency. Even after it offered two different budgets with large funding cuts, the agency was closed down, leaving those in need without an alternative. 

Evidently, Fallin and Barresi don’t think people with disabilities can be educated or become productive citizens.

Larson’s claim of government efficiency glosses over the real truth: Fallin eliminated several boards, committees and commissions that gave a voice to various minorities, such as the Human Rights Commission, Affirmative Action, Native American Affairs, Hispanic Affairs, Asian Affairs, etc.  I suspect that members of those neglected communities would differ with the words of the legislator from south of our border.

While he bragged about government efficiency, why didn’t the all-knowing Lyle Larson mention the large increases given to several agency heads that ranged from $10,000 to $47,000 per year in raises? Some of those annual raises were larger than some state employees’ annual salaries. How fair is that?

In addressing fairness, what about the issue of funding for public education? After suffering deep cuts for several years, the increases now given do not raise the funding past 2008 levels, even though Oklahoma public schools have a huge increase in enrollment.

With about 40,000 more students to teach and a continuing loss of teachers, the current class size has more than doubled from the size allowed in the now defunct HB 1017 class size.

Fallin and Barressi both agreed that teachers need a $2,000 pay raise; however, they sidestepped the issue by saying let the various districts come up with the money. Yes, an already underfunded district can now be expected to find additional money to give the teachers a well-deserved pay raise.

Those two Republicans used the same logic to say they were for “safe rooms” in schools, but again, let the districts find a pot of gold to pay for them. How efficient is it for the governor to want to take a well-funded pension plan — like that of the teachers, which is funded at about 85 percent — and want to replace it with a risky “Wall Street” type retirement plan?

Pension plans are considered to be fully funded when they reach 80 percent, because not every member retires at the same time.  It appears to me to be ludicrous to change a successful plan for one of unknown value, except that the change might benefit some hedge fund manager.

I will give Larson credit, though; he wisely did not mention the crumbling Oklahoma State Capitol building, four years into the Fallin administration, nor the unfinished, potentially gigantic, tourist attraction — the Native American Center — sitting at the cross roads of the nation.

These two historic buildings deserve much more attention than they are receiving.  Oh, and one more thing, while attending the recent very successful education rally at our Capitol, I could not help but notice the removal of all the yellow warning tape and the various barricades and scaffolding that has obscured the entrance to our State House.

I can only assume that the leadership did not think it would look good on TV, knowing there would be much attention paid to the rally. Larson, let me give you a little advice, take care of Texas, with your high rate of child poverty, your war on women and attempts at voter suppression, and we will take care of Oklahoma.

Wallace Collins, of Norman, is chair of the Oklahoma Democratic Party.

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