We interrupt the frenzied, final weeks of the 2010 primary campaign for non-election (mostly) news and comment:
News: State Rep. Jason Murphey, R-Guthrie, becomes the first state lawmaker to add his name to Common Cause Oklahoma's new No Gifts List, publicly announcing he will not accept anything of value from lobbyists or others seeking to influence legislative decision-making.
Comment: Murphey's very public rejection of gifts, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant, doesn't set well with many of his colleagues who don't want attention drawn to the fact they enjoy being wined, dined and otherwise feted by state government's army of special interest professionals.
What's appalling is that nearly three weeks after Common Cause established the list at commoncause.org/OK/NoGifts, Murphey remains the only legislator to affix his name.
Let's be clear about this: All these meals, golf outings, ballgames and trinkets that lobbyists shower on our elected officials are designed to produce one thing -- access.
They give lobbyists who virtually live in the Capitol rotunda during the February-May legislative sessions (and attend many election year fundraisers, as well) a decided advantage in the legislative decision-making process over rank-and-file Oklahomans who might show up for an hour, once in their lives, with problems they want their elected representative to help solve.
There is no excuse for Oklahoma lawmakers -- among the highest paid in the nation (around $50,000 in salary and benefits annually) -- to accept anything from anyone. If they want to dine or attend an NBA game with a lobbyist, it should be Dutch treat. Period.
State Ethics Commission rules prohibit each lobbyist from giving more than $100 a year in gifts to each legislator. It might not seem like much, at first blush, but do the math: There are 101 state House members and 48 state senators. There are more than 400 lobbyists and 700 lobbyist-employers (companies, groups, etc. that hire lobbyists) registered with the state.
With thousands of special interest dollars greasing the wheels of the legislative process, it's easy to see why many Oklahomans are so cynical about the Legislature and government -- convinced that lawmakers and special interests all-too-often conspire on cozy deals that benefit the rich and powerful at the expense of the Average Joe.
Here's a first step to help level the playing field: Ask your senator and representative -- as well as candidates for legislative offices in your districts -- to add their names to the Common Cause list. It's the right thing to do.
Stimulate the System
News: A recent USA Today/Gallup Poll found that 60 percent of surveyed Americans support additional government spending to create jobs and stimulate the economy. Further, 83 percent of Democrats and 52 percent of independents support a second round of stimulus spending, while 61 percent of Republicans oppose it.
Comment: You'd never guess a significant majority favors more government spending right now, rather than less, given cable television news' obsessive Tea Party coverage.
You can't ignore the long-term, potentially negative implications of a staggering national debt, but there's even more reason, short-term, to fear a spike in job losses that could plunge a teetering economy into a second recession or, worse, a depression.
Which brings us to Oklahoma. The federal stimulus program enacted last year rescued the state budget, helping preserve vital services and thousands of jobs. Now, as many as 5,000 teachers alone are at risk of losing their jobs. A second federal stimulus could ensure thousands of teachers remain taxpayers and consumers. It also helps students: More teachers equal smaller classes equal better learning.
A Little More Open
News: Term-limited state Sen. Kenneth Corn, seeking to become Oklahoma's next lieutenant governor, unveils a seven-point plan aimed at making the legislative process more transparent and "scandal free." His major proposal: Require the Legislature to comply with the state's Open Meetings and Open Records law "just like the rest of state, county and municipal governments have to do."
Comment: Retiring state Rep. Lucky Lamons, D-Tulsa, tried to shame the Legislature into opening up the process last session but wasn't successful. The elected powers-that-be like the system the way it is -- because they can operate more freely without the news media or citizenry watching their every move.
Barring a corruption scandal that implicates legislative leaders at the highest levels, the best hope for forcing lawmakers to do the right thing -- open up the process -- is via initiative petition. You don't need a fancy statewide poll to know Oklahomans would vote overwhelmingly to force the Legislature to live by the same rules as every other state, county and municipal government entity.
Moving Out and On
News: Wayne Rohde, the Edmond father who helped lead the fight to require insurance companies to cover autism treatment for Oklahoma children, tells friends and supporters in an e-mail that he and his family are leaving the state at month's end.
Comment: Rohde and Co. never persuaded lawmakers to enact the autism coverage mandate known as "Nick's Law," named for Rohde's son. But their efforts produced a partial victory this year when the Legislature required insurance companies to cover an autistic person's other health care needs.
Moreover, Rohde's tireless efforts helped shed light on a troubling reality: Oklahoma's legislative leadership is a wholly owned subsidiary of the insurance industry. There is no other explanation for their callous disregard for families and children wrestling with autism.
Twenty-one states already have passed similar legislation, but Oklahoma is playing a cost-shifting game: Insurance companies don't want to pay for treatment of autistic children because it affects their bottom line now (though there is evidence it really doesn't cost them much). But it could really affect the taxpayers' bottom line in the future: Who do you think will end up paying for many of those who didn't receive proper treatment as children but who require even more costly care as adults?
About 1 in 100 children are now diagnosed with autism.
As Rohde pointed out in his e-mail, "Many of our children will become teenagers very soon and employment opportunities need to be expanded ... There is a tidal wave approaching our nation regarding the large numbers of children with autism becoming adults in the next three to four years. Employment, housing, long-term care, and many other issues will have to be addressed."
Oklahoma will miss the Rohdes.
-- Arnold Hamilton is editor of The Oklahoma Observer; www.okobserver.net
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