The state's savings account now tops $535 million, up $2.7 million after better-than-expected revenues recently enabled a Rainy Day Fund deposit for the third consecutive year.
The bit of good news is small consolation, however, to most state employees, enduring their seventh year -- and counting -- without a pay raise.
In recent years, for whatever reason, there has been scant political will to do right by state government workers, be they highway patrol troopers, correctional officers or public health inspectors.
In fact, many Oklahomans -- and not just the political elite -- seem indifferent, if not downright hostile, to the plight of public employees, often stereotyped as lazy, shiftless and/or unmotivated.
It's a curious love-hate relationship. When our car strands us alongside a rural highway, we breathe a sigh of relief when a trooper appears. When minors are at risk in a volatile home, we cheer their rescue by child welfare workers. And when heavy rains wash away roads or bridges, we're well pleased to see repair crews Johnny-on-the-spot.
Even more curious: Oklahoma is home to more public workers per capita -- particularly federal employees -- than just about any other state. We have seen the enemy and it is us.
No doubt many Oklahomans are just happy to be employed, given the shaky economy. No doubt many in the private sector also have gone seven years without a pay raise -- or seen token raises swamped by soaring health insurance premiums and gas prices.
It just seems that if we consider our public workers anything more than slave labor, we could figure out ways to compensate them more fairly -- to send a signal that we appreciate their dedication, skill and hard work.
Isn't it more than a little disconcerting and embarrassing that some of our state employees -- especially those, like correctional workers, in the most dangerous of professions -- are paid so poorly that they qualify for food stamps?
Finally, there are signs that our elected state government leadership does have a conscience, after all.
Though Gov. Mary Fallin refuses to expand the Sept. 3 special session agenda beyond the Corporate Protection Act (aka lawsuit reform), lawmakers on both sides of the political divide are urging her to reconsider and allow full discussion of the state's prison funding crisis.
Consider these eye-popping statistics, courtesy of state Rep. Gus Blackwell, R-Laverne: State prisons are at 97.7 percent capacity. Nearly 1,700 more inmates are in county jails awaiting transfer to state facilities (they often languish there for eight to ten months). Yet, as of July 1, only 61.68 percent of state correctional officer positions are filled.
To say state prisons are short-staffed would be a colossal understatement. They are dangerously short-staffed. What's it going to take to convince the governor to expand the special session agenda to include corrections? A bloody riot?
Blackwell says the corrections department has about $7 million in revolving funds, but can't spend $5 million of it without specific legislative approval.
If special sessions aren't for real emergencies (as opposed to the lawsuit reform faux emergency), what are they for?
As Blackwell put it, "Public safety is the number one legitimate core function of government. It's essential that we make sure that the officers and staff of the Department of Corrections are able to perform their jobs in an atmosphere of safety and that the citizens of Oklahoma are kept safe from the danger inherent in overcrowded prisons. The continued low number of officers coupled with the high incarceration rates is producing a situation that is conducive to extremely problematic scenarios in the DOC facilities.
"If the governor believes that tort reform is such a pressing issue that she must call a special session, then surely the safety and protection of DOC employees ought to also be on the agenda."
State Rep. David Perryman, D-Chickasha, notes that starting pay for correctional officers -- $11.83 an hour or $24,605 per year -- is less (adjusted for inflation) than new officers earned in 1973, when the McAlester prison went up in flames and the federal courts seized control of the state's correctional system.
Six years without a pay raise, coupled with 11 furlough days in FY 2011, yields salaries so meager that 30 percent of state corrections officers qualify for food stamps and 85 percent for the federal free- and reduced-lunch programs for their school children.
"Shouldn't an appreciation of reality lead us to be committed to allowing full time employees of the state of Oklahoma to earn enough income to raise a family and live above the poverty level?" asked Perryman.
If Fallin clings to her Marie Antoinette-esque "let them eat cake" mindset, then the best correctional officers -- and more than 30,000 other state workers -- can hope for is that the 2014 Legislature will finally cough up some more compensation.
At least lawmakers may have a road map for upgrading public worker salaries.
The Office of Management and Enterprise Services began studying the matter in June with an announced goal of determining the appropriate pay levels for some 33,000 state employees. An outside consultant is being paid $77,000 to help. A final report is expected later this year.
A note of caution: Don't read too much into the notion of a pay study. It is a time-honored tradition that the state's elected elite orders up such studies as political cover -- nothing more than lip service. A study is announced amid much fanfare. The results are later ballyhooed. And the matter ends up in a file cabinet or the recycling bin, unresolved.
Actually, what might get the ball rolling is a growing case of public employee envy. Did you notice that the State Regents for Higher Education recently awarded their staff a five percent pay hike -- the first since FY 2009?
The State Regents operate as an independent arm of state government. When it comes to compensation, they can pretty much do whatever they want with the money they manage.
Cue up the applause! With one action, they not only improved the lives of 268 employees, but also had the courage to highlight an oft-inconvenient truth: you get what you pay for.
If we want the best troopers, the best educators, the best researchers ... the best state workers ... we have to be willing to pay for them.
The State Regents were having trouble attracting and keeping the best and brightest. Compensation was a significant factor. They upped the pay. A no-brainer.
How will the governor and Legislature respond to the challenge?
Arnold Hamilton is editor of The Oklahoma Observer; www.okobserver.net
Share this article: