POSTED ON FEBRUARY 9, 2011:
Ask about fixing the education and state prisons later
Now the heavy lifting begins.
The governor's first State of the State message earlier this week helped launch the 53rd legislative session, the first time in state history that Republicans are in total control. The issues, however, aren't new: a $600 million budget hole and crumbling roads, underfunded schools and overcrowded prisons, corporate welfare and poverty.
Just how the GOP will translate simplistic campaign slogans -- government bad, taxes worse, Obama (fill in the blank with the epithet of your choice) -- into solving complex problems remains to be seen.
But this much is certain: the lead-up to the session was all-too-full of overheated rhetoric and preening for TV cameras rather than serious public discussions of serious policy issues.
There were exceptions. New House Speaker Kris Steele and some Republican lawmakers, in both houses, appear determined to tackle the state's prison crisis, in effect taking on the lock-'em-up-and-throw-away-the-key mentality that has dominated Oklahoma politics for at least three decades.
Tough-on-crime is good sloganeering, but lousy governing. Oklahoma has more women in prison per capita than any other state and is No. 4 in male inmates. Are we really that much more criminal than our neighbors? Hardly.
More than half the state's inmates are non-violent offenders -- wards of the taxpayers thanks to a Legislature that methodically ramped up penalties for almost anything short of causing a hangnail.
The anti-crime pandering created a prison industrial complex that siphons precious tax dollars from vital services (think education and roads) and sears a scarlet "C" (for criminal) on thousands whose incarceration makes it difficult, if not impossible, for them to become productive, taxpaying citizens in the future.
Look at the raw numbers: The amount the state spends on corrections jumped to $483 million last year from $366 million in 2000 -- even though the number of guards dropped to 1,807 from 2,114. Over the same period, the number of inmates mushroomed to nearly 26,000 from 22,600.
Even Neanderthal Texas figured out this was a recipe for disaster. Rather than spend money on absorbing a projected 17,000 new inmates, the state opted to expand drug treatment and offer probation to more non-violent offenders, like hot check writers and drug users. Texas prisons are now under capacity.
Without federal stimulus money to fill the budget hole, and with another quarter-percentage-point cut in the state income tax about to kick in, Oklahoma's fiscal crisis is acute. Corrections alone needs $9 million just to finish this fiscal year.
If Steele and common-sense Republicans can fix the prison crisis, they will have earned their place in the history books.
Unfortunately, there is sufficient evidence to suggest the GOP-dominated Legislature will be unable to resist majoring on the crowd-pleasing minors -- the serious heavy lifting that Oklahoma's current sad state of affairs requires be damned.
Are open-carry and campus-carry really more important issues than lowering the state's dropout rate or ensuring that higher education is affordable? Only if your IQ is lower than a .38.
The election was three months ago, but you'd never know it by the incessant quest for political advantage. Exhibit A: the over-the-top Republican response to the recent showdown between new state Superintendent Janet Barresi and the State Board of Education.
I received no fewer than 10 -- count 'em, 10! -- news releases from GOP lawmakers lambasting the board for its actions, especially its refusal to permit Barresi to hire all of her executive team choices, including her former campaign manager as ed department chief of staff.
Would there be as many news releases heralding the Second Coming?
The Tulsa World and Oklahoman editorial pages predictably joined in the Republican cacophony, busily tsk-tsking about the board's behavior, taking Barresi's side without much acknowledging the board's role or authority and repeating the rightwing's anti-public ed mantra.
These are facts worth noting: The State Board of Education was established in the Constitution. The Legislature was given the authority to set the board's duties and responsibilities. And now state law affords broad powers to the board (see Title 70 in Oklahoma statutes).
You can argue about whether Barresi was given a mandate by voters last November to broadly reform public education. You can argue about the wisdom of the state superintendent being the only statewide-elected constitutional officeholder to report to an appointed board. You can argue about the demeanor of board members and Barresi at their first public meeting. You can argue about whether this is partisan politics -- Republican Barresi versus a state board all appointed by former Democratic Gov. Brad Henry.
But the mainstream media editorials that sniff about the board's "childish" behavior and implore them to act like adults miss the point: The board's duties and powers are what they are. And the superintendent clearly doesn't like the oversight.
Three times before the Jan. 27 meeting board member Tim Gilpin asked Barresi or her staff, in writing, for more information about her proposed executive team and her plans to remake the department, among other things. Three times his requests went unanswered.
I met Gilpin for the time just before the meeting started -- we introduced ourselves, but that was it. I attended because it was Barresi's first meeting -- not because I expected it to be as contentious as it was. I hoped to learn more about her proposed vision for the agency.
You'd didn't get much of a sense of this from the mainstream media reports, but after reading Gilpin's e-mails -- dated Nov. 19 (to chief-of-staff-designate and former campaign manager Jennifer Carter), Dec. 13 and Jan. 21 -- it's clear why the meeting was so tense.
Gilpin -- and presumably other board members -- weren't happy that she ignored the questions. And Barresi operated as if the board should be nothing more than a rubber stamp. She repeatedly argued that the board hadn't given her predecessor, Democrat Sandy Garrett, similar problems.
Before dismissing this as partisan politics -- which is what Republicans want -- it is worth noting that Garrett was elected state superintendent two years after GOP Gov. Henry Bellmon named her as his cabinet secretary for education.
Republican legislators continue to talk about trimming the state education board's powers. And Barresi made a splash by meeting with Attorney General Scott Pruitt to express concerns the state board violated the state's open meetings rules.
There is no need to neuter the state education board. GOP Gov. Mary Fallin will get her opportunities soon enough to appoint members (Gilpin's term expires in April). And Republicans would do well to remember that Democrats someday again will be elected governor and state superintendent. Do they really want to eliminate the board's check-and-balance on one of state government's most important departments?
How about this instead: rolling up their sleeves and doing the hard work -- fixing corrections and education? That would be the best way to ensure political advantage.
-Arnold Hamilton is editor of The Oklahoma Observer; www.okobserver.net
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