A maximum of four weeks to go in the 2013 legislative session, a minimum of four things you ought to know:
1. If you're a state employee or a public school teacher, the Legislature is monkeying with your pension system.
Not just tinkering, not improving, but monkeying with it.
Police and firefighters better pay attention, too.
The legislature's powers that be are on the verge of crafting profound changes in the benefit plans that long helped make public service appealing.
That means benefits for some current and future state workers and teachers may be significantly lower than the present systems.
No one outside the negotiating cabal knows for sure, of course. But the signs are unmistakable.
Change is coming, and the state leadership's disregard for state workers (no raises in six-plus years) and teachers (49th worst-paid in the nation) will be further cemented.
One thing seems certain to happen: consolidating most -- if not all -- the public worker plans under a single board appointed by the governor.
Proponents argue that it could save $50 million in administrative costs that could be diverted into cost-of-living increases and state employee raises.
But the figure appears to be more wishful thinking than reality -- taking the best-case scenarios only from the returns produced by the various pension funds.
Pension reform is not necessarily a bad thing. Changes that ensure we keep our commitments to our public servants are not only moral imperatives, but also prudent public policy.
Here's what's galling, though: The changes swirling around the Capitol rotunda shouldn't be jammed through in the session's frenzied, final hours, when public input will be at a minimum and most legislators won't have time to even read, much less seriously analyze, the proposal.
But that is exactly what appears to be happening.
The state's public school teachers are awakening to this potential disaster. And they're starting to raise hell. Of course, that doesn't set well with the liege lords who evidently can't abide the serfs exercising their constitutional right to debate and influence public policy.
2. The governor and legislative leadership unveiled their latest income tax cut plan -- more reductions aimed at lowering the top rate from current 5.25 percent to 4.85 percent.
Interestingly, the cuts wouldn't take effect until 2015 after the top dogs are safely re-elected in 2014 and before anyone feels the full impact of the cuts on our schools and other state services.
Gov. Fallin primarily sold the cuts as a way for taxpayers to be able to keep $237 million of "their hard-earned money." She also asserted that every time lawmakers have cut taxes in the past, more tax revenues have poured in.
This is the 21st century, right? We live in a world more connected than ever, but things like this, make our elected leaders seem trapped in the Pony Express era. They're still awaiting the news that former President George H.W. Bush broke to the American people: supply-side economics doesn't work. Ronald Reagan tried it, and the deficit skyrocketed. He ended up working with Congress to raise taxes.
Bush dismissed it as "voodoo economics." The Oklahoma Policy Institute's David Blatt called it the "single most discredited idea in economics."
It is true that revenue has increased since the tax-cutting frenzy began earlier this millennium. But it isn't because lower taxes magically led to more revenue. It's because of a variety of factors, including population growth (more Oklahomans to pay into the system) and inflation (higher salaries to offset the higher costs of goods and services).
Here are some numbers you should know:
Seventy percent of the tax cut will go to the wealthiest 20 percent of state families.
Per-pupil funding of public education is 20 percent lower than five years ago - the third-severest cut in the nation.
The waiting list for state assistance for the developmentally disabled was 7,098 -- and climbing -- as of mid-April.
3. A majority of the Oklahoma Legislature simply refuses to acknowledge the dangers of texting-while-driving, even though 40 states already restrict it, polls show public opinion strongly favors it, and research shows texting drivers are 23 times more likely to be involved in an accident or a near-miss than those who aren't so distracted.
The ban is common sense. It's certainly not a partisan issue: Republicans and Democrats alike have pushed for it.
Heck, you can't even get the legislature to ban texting-while-driving in school or work zones or intersections.
"Law enforcement tells us the language to address 'texting with handheld devices' is in statute today, but they don't have what they need to enforce texting while driving as a primary offense," noted state Rep. Jeannie McDaniel, D-Tulsa.
"Oklahoma citizens of all ages have asked for this legislation through calls, petitions and more," she continued. "Additionally, by making texting while driving illegal we can educate drivers about the dangers of this habitual behavior. It's dangerous for everyone from drivers, passengers and those unintended innocent victims."
Yet, somewhere behind the curtain, the Great Legislative Oz pulls the levers to shut it down. You hear mumbling about personal freedoms, like helmet-free motorcycling -- yet we require seat belts, don't we? No one offers a serious, plausible reason to block such a law.
You'd think big insurance would be working overtime in favor.
It looks like the only way this is going to get done is for voters -- one at a time -- to demand it. Nothing snags lawmakers' attention quite like a barrage of phone calls, letters and e-mails.
4. Last but not least, the legislative fight over militarizing the state's public schools -- a silly, knee-jerk response to Newtown -- looks like it will go down the wire.
Rep. Mark McCullough, R-Sapulpa, won House approval for an amendment to Senate Bill 408 that would allow specially-trained teachers and other district employees to carry firearms on school grounds -- the idea being it would provide protection if a deranged shooter begins unloading in one of Oklahoma's schools.
Now the proposal returns to the Senate, where it was derailed earlier in the session. Senate Education Committee Chairman John Ford, R-Bartlesville, said Senate leaders thought it wiser to embrace the recommendations of the school safety task force -- which did not suggest introducing more gun-carriers to school buildings.
SB 408's author, Sen. Susan Paddock, D-Ada, opposes McCullough's idea, adding: "I support having armed safety officers in our schools, but I do not support making our educators have to also become law enforcement officers," she said.
This one bears watching. If the school safety task force, headed by a former FBI agent, didn't think it was a good idea, state lawmakers should take heed.
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