What is it with the Oklahoma Legislature's disregard for -- and disrespect of -- of public employees?
It's been six years since state workers received pay raises. Moreover, budget cuts have decimated the state's work force -- down nearly 10 percent since 2009 -- meaning far fewer employees serving a growing state population.
The human toll is not limited to those cashing a state paycheck. It also profoundly affects those who depend on vital state services. In other words, all of us.
Too few state troopers to patrol too many miles. Too few correctional officers to guard too many inmates. Too few social workers to help too many mentally ill or developmentally disabled
This whole notion of how we treat our public employees and fund vital public services is coming into sharper focus as lawmakers and Gov. Mary Fallin pursue yet another income tax cut in the Legislature's final two months.
Oh, the rhetoric is splendid: The preening politicos prattle endlessly about allowing Oklahoma taxpayers to keep more of their hard-earned money. But the reality is far different.
Example No. 1: The Department of Corrections. At a time when a $120 million to $200 million income tax cut is on the negotiating table, lawmakers turned a blind eye to HB 2146 that would have raised the starting salary for correctional officers to $14 an hour from $11.83.
Think about that: Some clear-thinking lawmakers wanted to get starting salaries for those who guard the state's most dangerous lawbreakers up what's paid a convenience store clerk.
It never got a hearing by the full House.
The $11.83 an hour translates into $473.20 for a 40-hour week or $1,892 a month or $22,713 annually. A family of four attempting to live on that income qualifies for food stamps.
Our elected leaders, in general, and the Legislature's Republican majority, in particular, are forever preaching about family values.
But, as state Rep. Donnie Condit, D-McAlester, put it, "We're asking these workers to live near poverty."
The staff shortage is so severe that correctional officers often are forced to work double-shifts, some as many as four a week -- a potentially dangerous situation.
"Even when it isn't mandatory," says Lt. Cecil Dooley, who works at Lexington's Joseph Harp Correctional Center, "we have officers that feel they're being threatened if they don't stay.
"Of course, officers enjoyed the overtime in their paychecks for a while, but now they just want to go home to their families. And they can't get there."
Example No. 2: The Oklahoma Highway Patrol.
Like other state employees, troopers haven't had a raise since 2006. OHP not only has 56 fewer troopers than it did in '06, it has 157 fewer troopers than it's authorized to hire -- another sign that state salaries are so bad they are a deterrent, rather than an incentive, to become a trooper.
Former OHP Chief Gary D. Adams says many state troopers are forced to moonlight because the costs of necessities such as gas and food are up 26.7% - by his calculations -- during the six years the troopers have gone without a pay hike.
The House, at least, recently approved legislation that would increase trooper salaries 16 percent -- if it can win Senate approval and the governor's support.
But things could get worse for OHP before they get better: The patrol could dwindle to as few as 550, covering 77 counties, if all the troopers eligible for retirement decided suddenly to hang it up.
Former state Rep. Paul Roan, who spent three decades in law enforcement, says that among 768 current troopers "they've got four that are going to retire by the end of April, and they have 211 more that if they just tell the chief, if they get up in the morning and have a bad hair day, they can call headquarters and say I'm retiring at the end of the month."
Example No. 3: Legislative leaders and the governor talk the talk about rewarding good teachers and keeping the best instructors in Oklahoma's public school classrooms.
The problem is, the elected class doesn't walk the walk.
Instead of finding ways to continue providing a $5,000 annual stipend to National Board Certified Teachers, lawmakers now are saying the best they can do is bump these highly-trained instructors up a step on the pay scale - $1,500 a year.
The program currently costs the state about $15 million a year -- which is a helluva lot of money to you and me, but in the context of a $7 billion state budget is pocket change. Shouldn't we be willing to pay the full $5K bonus -- it's merit pay, really -- for those teachers willing to work hard to be the best they can be for our children?
Evidently not. Evidently our lawmakers think it's better politics to cut income taxes $120 million -- which would put an extra $39 on average into the pockets of Oklahoma taxpayers.
Better politics? Perhaps. Better public policy? Not even close.
That $39 - $3.25 per month -- won't even buy one grande Carmel Macchiato at Starbucks.
But pooled with other Oklahoma taxpayers, it could help give future National Board Certified Teachers their full stipends, ensuring the most highly-trained instructors are working with our children.
Pooled with other Oklahoma taxpayers, it could help lift correctional officers and their families above the poverty line.
Pooled with other Oklahoma taxpayers, it could help increase state trooper salaries to the point that OHP re-emerges as an attractive career, the best-and-brightest in law enforcement keeping motorists safe.
What it comes down to is priorities. Most state agencies have endured across-the-board cuts of at least 15 percent in recent years as one income tax cut after another -- that mostly benefited the state's wealthiest residents -- kicked in. Public employees, our neighbors, have been unfortunate victims of disconnect between taxes and services, fueled by an uber-right devotion to supply-side economics.
Fallin and many GOP legislative leaders suffer from this malady, a feverish delusion that cutting taxes generates more revenue. Fallin remains convinced there is more than enough money this year to cut taxes and adequately fund vital state services.
There is no free lunch. You can't continue to cut taxes and fund the highest-quality schools, roads, prisons and child welfare programs.
Sorry, the numbers don't add up.
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