A standard Republican talking point in recent years depicted the wisdom of Oklahoma's political leaders versus D.C.'s knuckleheads.
It went something like this:
Washington: dumb, Oklahoma City: sage. Washington: gridlocked, Oklahoma City: problem-solving. Washington: hyper-partisan, Oklahoma City: Kumbaya. Washington: corrupt, Oklahoma City: ethical.
Sanctimony writ large, to be sure. But it was precisely the kind of ain't-our-land-grand baloney that serves as a veritable feast for those short on critical-thinking skills.
The sad reality is, state government is far too often beginning to mirror Washington.
Arguably the most egregious example is a creeping indifference in Oklahoma's Halls of Power to the Revolving Door, a symbiotic relationship between the elected Powers-That-Be and the financial Powers-That-Be.
In Washington, the joke is that old lawmakers never die, they just become highly-paid lobbyists, parlaying insider knowledge of congressional sausage-making and their relationships with former colleagues and staff to win influence for their new employers.
In reality, of course, those "new employers" aren't so "new." They're often some of the lawmaker's staunchest campaign contributors. The solons return the favor by protecting the contributors' legislative interests whenever appropriate.
Even President Obama has taken heat -- much of it from liberal supporters and well-deserved -- over his appointments to his White House brain trust, particularly Wall Street and industry insiders who gave the Powers-That-Be an even bigger voice when it comes to monetary policy, bailouts, regulation and oversight during tough economic times.
The revolving door began spinning in Oklahoma last week when Gov. Mary Fallin's energy secretary, Mike Ming, announced he would leave by year's end to become general manager of the recently-announced Oklahoma City-area GE Global Research Center.
Ming no doubt played a key role in helping land the facility that will focus on oil and gas and is expected to create 125 new engineering jobs, and in the state's decision to award GE $3 million in cash payments and tax breaks as incentives to close the deal.
Now he lands a leadership position with the operation he helped secure, using taxpayer incentives and his gubernatorial cabinet position.
It may be perfectly innocent. Serendipitous, in fact. But does it pass the smell test? At least one state lawmaker isn't so sure.
Sen. Tom Ivester, D-Sayre, was careful not to accuse anyone of impropriety. But the mere fact he issued a news release drawing attention to the hiring suggests Oklahoma taxpayers should sit up and take note.
"Today, we found out that Energy Secretary Michael Ming, who was surely involved in the effort to bring the GE Global Research Center to Oklahoma, is leaving his post to go head up this new facility," Ivester noted.
"The state of Oklahoma handed out more than $3 million in cash payments and tax breaks funded by taxpayer dollars to GE to attract this research facility focused on energy technology. Millions of dollars in cash payments and tax breaks from the Governor's Closing Fund and the Oklahoma Quality Jobs Program were used to close this deal," the statement said.
For his part, Ming told the Norman Transcript that "as secretary of energy, I've worked with Gov. Fallin to ensure that Oklahoma remains a leader, not just in energy production, but in energy research and the development of cutting-edge technologies. The decision to locate this new, state-of-the-art facility in Oklahoma is a huge victory for the state.
"GE's Global Research Center will spur economic growth and continue to enhance Oklahoma's reputation as a global hub for energy companies. I am extremely excited for the opportunity to lead the work being done there, and to build on the tremendous partnership between one of the world's finest companies and the state of Oklahoma," he said.
It's easy to see why GE would want Ming on its team. They're investing in a new research center in a state with some of the biggest independent oil and gas players anywhere. What better way to nuzzle up to the state's tightly connected political and energy elite than to hire a trusted insider from a governor who, if she were a NASCAR driver, would have oil and gas logos painted on her state vehicle and sewn onto her blazers?
Whether it's a good deal for Oklahoma and its taxpayers is another question entirely. Was the $3 million state giveaway essential to persuading GE to expand here?
GE executives themselves indicated they chose Oklahoma for three reasons: location, location, location -- in this case, proximity to oil and gas customers.
Irony alert: Isn't it interesting that a financial juggernaut like GE, which paid no federal income tax in 2010, was all too happy to belly up to the state trough and feast on tax revenues?
You don't think state lawmakers could have identified a dozen vital state services that would benefit from $3 million -- not a huge amount when considering a $7 billion state budget, but nothing to sniff at if you're, oh, I don't know, let's just say a state trooper who hasn't gotten a raise in seven years?
Oklahoma's elected elite used to at least feign interest in appearances. Out-of-power Republicans, in particular, wailed incessantly about Democratic shenanigans, pledging that if they ever got control, they'd clean up the good ol' boy back-scratching, and pronto!
Of course, given the chance, they morphed into the proverbial ostrich, unwilling or unable to pull his head out of his ... uh ... the sand.
It was only three years ago, you surely recall, that three former lawmakers joined the state Insurance Department as deputy commissioners. Starting salaries: between $67,900 and $92,000, even though none had any insurance expertise.
Perhaps the GOP majority -- including rookie Insurance Commissioner John Doak -- simply was unaware of the provision in the state constitution that prohibits legislators from working for a state agency within two years of leaving office?
No, they found a loophole, arguing -- and the attorney general agreed -- that ex-lawmakers were not bound by the prohibition if their salaries are paid from private or federal funds, not state-appropriated dollars that they had voted for.
It may have satisfied the letter of the law, but certainly not the spirit. And certainly not the spin that Oklahoma doesn't play the same silly games as Washington.
This is what happens when one party so dominates political power at the state Capitol. It was unseemly business when the Democrats did it last century. And it's no less acceptable that Republicans are doing it this century.
The Revolving Door needs to be slammed shut. Permanently.
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