Roundup of Oklahoma editorials

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Here are excerpts from recent editorials in Oklahoma newspapers:

Tulsa World, Feb. 4, 2014

Fallin plan

We found much to like in Gov. Mary Fallin's State of the State speech Monday.

We agree with Fallin's assessment that the state of the state is strong. While some of that has to do with the luck of commodity prices and geology, Fallin's leadership also deserves due credit.

When she came to office, the state had a $500 million budget hole and $2.03 in its "rainy day" fund. Today the state's budget is balanced and the emergency fund has $530 million in it. Meanwhile, unemployment and tax rates are down.

If Fallin takes some public pride in that turnaround, we say it is deserved.

In her plans for the coming year we are particularly pleased with her evolving attitude toward the Justice Reinvestment Initiative.

The initiative is a proven strategy for saving money on prisons while reducing crime. Fallin signed the Oklahoma version of the initiative into law in 2011, but allowed it to wither without funding.

With new leadership at the state Department of Corrections, Fallin has added money for the initiative and says she is looking forward to improving "smart on crime" efforts.

We support Fallin's proposal to move new state employees into a 401(k)-style defined contribution plan instead of the state pension fund. This wouldn't affect most state pension plans, including the one covering teachers, but it would put one of the state's biggest debt-troubled retirement plans on a path toward a sustainable future.

Fallin wants to adjust state compensation to emphasize higher pay and lower benefits. That would give state employees more freedom to make decisions about how to spend their earnings. A defined contribution plan will give workers more ownership of retirement fund decisions and make those retirement funds portable if they leave state employment.

It's a reformist move that parallels the direction private enterprise took decades ago.

We also support Fallin's call for a state bond issue and for targeting that effort toward state Capitol repairs.

We continue to call for scrutiny of the bond plans to make sure the Capitol costs are prudent. We want a safe, sanitary Capitol building, not a mink-lined one. That said, the wise way to finance those costs is over time in a bond issue.

Fallin's budget proposal needs close consideration.

She proposed a $50 million increase in funding for public schools and a 5 percent cut in funding to many agencies.

Both parts of that idea will be controversial. The school funding won't be enough for many people and the cuts in agency funding will be much too much for others.

Fallin seemed to recognize that when she said, "Those who like bigger government and higher taxes will say the sky is falling."

We don't like big government or high taxes, and we won't take our cues from bureaucrats. We want government to be big enough to accomplish the state's critical needs and taxes high enough to pay for those needs — no more. The critical test for Fallin's proposed budget — and this isn't a judgment that anyone should make in an hour or a day — is whether the Fallin plan meets those needs.

We remain skeptical of plans to continue cutting the state income tax. Fallin proposes cutting the tax by 0.25 percent, an amount most taxpayers wouldn't notice, but a big hit to state funding.

We urge Fallin and legislators to trigger any income tax reduction to increased state revenue and to reconsider tax reform aimed at eliminating giveaways that do not spur economic growth, especially tax breaks for horizontal drilling.

These sorts of efforts could make an income tax cut revenue neutral, assuring that schools, roads and public safety will not see any funding cuts as a result.

On balance, Fallin's speech was upbeat, conservative and filled with good ideas. We, along with the Legislature and the state's citizens, look forward to a close examination of the details and refining the draft into the best plan possible for our state.

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The Oklahoman, Feb. 1, 2014

Statesmanship should trump ideology during 2014 Oklahoma legislative session

In what could be the lamest of lame duck legislative sessions, lawmakers should model themselves on another, more majestic representative of the avian world.

The eagle.

This is a time to soar, a time for statesmanship and nobility rather than a stumble from one ideological waddle to another. This is a time to solve problems that need solving, rather than fixing things that aren't broken. This is a time to fly above the fracas in Washington and find conservative Oklahoma solutions for Oklahoma problems.

The 2014 legislative sessions begins Monday. House Speaker T.W. Shannon, R-Lawton, is a lame duck. He's seeking the U.S. Senate seat being vacated early by Tom Coburn and can't run simultaneously for the federal post and his state House seat. Senate Minority Leader Sean Burrage, D-Claremore, is voluntarily leaving the Senate before term limits would force him to go. Senate President Pro Tem Brian Bingman, R-Sapulpa, will defend his seat in November, but the term-limit law means that he can serve only half of his next term.

With a spate of lawmakers eying higher office, the lame duck registry may grow. But even lame ducks don't have to limp into obscurity. The can leave a legacy. Here are some ways that all legislators can soar above the status quo:

Corrections reform: One state representative recently complained that the Department of Corrections isn't properly using the private halfway houses at its disposal. If DOC would do so, he said, it could save money and help push the prison population down to about 96 percent of capacity. When trying to move down to 96 percent is seen as a victory, you've got problems.

The use of private facilities is one of many areas that DOC's new director, Robert Patton, will study as he settles into the job. But issues such as pay for correctional officers rest with the Legislature. Lawmakers need to do no further harm to this overburdened system, by rejecting bills that stand to make prisons even more crowded. The idea of being "smart on crime" is bandied about frequently at the Capitol. It's long past time members start doing that. Continuing with the policies of the past is inviting disaster.

Education reform: The Legislature must preserve important education reforms enacted in recent years. It's no secret that Oklahoma lags most states in educational achievement. Local businesses report that they can't fill many jobs because applicants lack basic skills. In recent years, lawmakers have required that seniors pass graduation tests before they can get a diploma. They instituted a simple A-F grading system to differentiate school performance, and required that third-graders repeat a grade if their reading skills are severely lacking. The forces of the status quo have pushed back on all these reforms. The fate of thousands of Oklahoma children, as well as the state's long-term economic future, hinges upon the need for an education system where mediocrity is not acceptable.

Infrastructure: Capital improvement needs have gone neglected for years. Many projects would be best addressed with bond financing. Opponents of bonded indebtedness have falsely equated it to federal deficit spending. They insist on a "pay as you go" method instead — but then consistently fail to actually pay as they go, leaving dilapidated buildings to simply fall into further disrepair.

That's not a sign of conservative governance; it's an embodiment of liberal parodies of conservative governance. No homeowner would brag that he allowed the roof to cave in on his house. Republican lawmakers should stop acting as though the barricades in front of the crumbling state Capitol are a sign of prudent governance.

Health / mental health: Between 700,000 and 950,000 Oklahomans suffer from mental illness or substance abuse. But 70 percent of adults and 40 percent of youths who need mental health treatment don't receive it. Even higher percentages go wanting for substance abuse services. Additionally, Oklahoma leads the nation in prescription drug abuse. The state has directed more money to mental health in recent years and this needs to remain a priority. Lawmakers can do little about smoking, overeating and lifestyle choices, but they ought to try to increase mental health funding and safeguard the Medicaid program from more cuts. The state's mental health and substance abuse problems are directly related to prison overpopulation.

Transportation: It's been about a decade since legislators finally got serious about funding repair and maintenance of Oklahoma's roads and bridges. This long-range funding program is a true success story. The number of unsafe bridges in Oklahoma continues to decline, and highway repair and construction projects are in full swing across the state. In this tight budget year, lawmakers need to resist any efforts to cut funding from the current eight-year road and bridge construction plan.

Logrolling: In recent years, multiple state laws have been struck down for violating the Oklahoma Constitution's requirement that most bills cover only a single topic. We've been among those questioning the validity of some rulings, such as a decision striking down a lawsuit reform bill. In that case, the measure appeared to deal with only one subject — albeit a complicated one.

But in several other instances, lawmakers clearly "logrolled" unrelated measures into one bill, such as combining a tax cut with an appropriation for partial repair of the Oklahoma Capitol. No one was surprised when the state Supreme Court unanimously struck down that bill. This year, lawmakers should make a point of abiding by the single-subject rule. If there is reason to question whether a bill covers one topic or two, lawmakers should err on the side of caution and pass separate bills.

Texting while driving: Republican House leaders who have consistently rejected proposals banning text-messaging for drivers of all ages ought to let Oklahoma join the 41 states that have embraced this idea. Yes, drivers can already be cited for distracted driving. But implementing a ban would make motorists think twice before texting and driving. If a ban ultimately didn't make the roads safer (that's doubtful), lawmakers could still say they tried. And passing such a law wouldn't expend any political capital, since there is no organized opposition. It also wouldn't require any additional spending.

Unfinished business: A bunch of state money — nearly $100 million — has already been spent on the American Indian Cultural Center and Museum, which sits unfinished east of downtown Oklahoma City. To complete it, private pledges totaling $40 million have been raised to match a similar amount needed from the state. This should be the year the AICCM gets its final push toward completion, giving the state a world-class museum.

Smell test: If it quacks like an ideological duck, that's what it is. The people deserve attention to the issues outlined above, and other pressing matters, rather than a host of ideological flyovers, many of which result in no real change and often require defending in federal court.

Statesmanship requires discipline and self-restraint. Its opposite is pandering. Ultimately, lawmakers won't be judged by how well they pandered or pontificated but by how well they governed, and by the state of the state when they leave office. Ideology fades. Ideas remain.

In 2014, the eagle needs to land at NE 23 and Lincoln.

___

The Journal Record, Feb. 4, 2014

A price too high

Gov. Mary Fallin, in Monday's State of the State address, reminded Oklahomans of the many positive things happening in the state. Our unemployment rate is low. Personal income is up. Net migration, the people moving in, is a plus.

She also reminded Oklahomans of the challenges. Graduation rates are too low. The Capitol is crumbling. Public pensions aren't funded.

And amid the anti-Washington rhetoric, there was a consistent theme: Government should be run more like a private business.

That was Fallin's justification for cutting state agency budgets by 5 percent while promising another income tax reduction of one-fourth of 1 percent. She reiterated the idea that the private sector, not state government, should be the cornerstone of job creation.

She's right on many of those points. And her endorsement of House Joint Resolution 1092 to allow school districts a one-time opportunity to exceed their bonding limits to pay for safety measures such as storm shelters is a good idea, too.

Fallin would solve the state employee pay crisis by increasing some salaries and reducing all benefits. New state employees would get a defined contribution plan similar to a 401(k), but don't be fooled into believing that businesses made that move because it was attractive to employees; they did it because it was cheaper than pensions, as it would be for the state. That's not a bad thing. Oklahoma could surely stand to reduce its employee retirement costs.

"State government needs to be able to attract and retain hardworking, dedicated Oklahomans like them," Fallin said. "And to do that, it needs to compensate its employees fairly."

Indeed. But that's hard to do when general revenue is down, agencies are taking 5-percent budget cuts and there's a proposal to cut income tax revenue another quarter point.

Since 2006, the Consumer Price Index has risen about 15.6 percent. That means the new car you could have bought for $23,000 then will now cost $26,588. Your $800-per-month apartment now costs $925. And if you work for the state, the $40,000-per-year salary you had in 2006 is still $40,000. It is not possible to retain quality employees when their effective income decreases every year. The loss of spending power doesn't help the state's economy, either.

Fallin has done a great many things right, as she enumerated Monday. But it is unconscionable to continue to reduce state income to the detriment of those who serve the public.

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