POSTED ON FEBRUARY 16, 2011:
Cold, Hard Truths
Oklahoma politics makes an icy introduction
The opening week of the 2011 legislative session was quintessentially good news/bad news.
The bad news was that heavy snow and bitter cold limited lawmakers to two workdays.
The good news? Heavy snow and bitter cold limited lawmakers to two workdays.
There is something in the DNA of Oklahomans that instinctively believes we are somehow safer and less vulnerable when our elected officials are not in session exercising the power to make mischief.
At its core, it's a quite cynical worldview. And believe me, it's not necessarily limited to Oklahoma. In Texas, where the Legislature meets for 140 days every two years, it's conventional wisdom the Republic would be better off if lawmakers met two days every 140 years instead.
All joking aside, perhaps the best news from the session's opening week was that heavy snow and bitter cold slowed life's frantic pace, affording a rare opportunity to step back, ponder, savor the coffee and gain perspective.
Among the random thoughts generated by Cabin Fever:
• Did anyone else find irony in the fact that new Gov. Mary Fallin, who tapped into anti-federal government fervor in order to win election last fall, turned to the federal government for help, even before the month's first snowflakes fell? President Obama quickly approved the governor's request for federal assistance. And here I was led to believe most Oklahomans wanted no part of Uncle Sugar.
• Did you notice that state government's Big Three -- Fallin, House Speaker Kris Steele and Senate President Pro Tem Brian Bingman -- all publicly embraced penal reform? In fact, it was a centerpiece of Fallin's State of the State address.
The state is bankrupting itself with a one-size-fits-all, three-strikes-you're-out, lock-em-up-and-throw-away-the-key mentality that has filled our prisons to excess with non-violent offenders -- most women per capital in the nation and fourth most men.
No one can plausibly label Fallin, Steele and Bingman as soft-on-crime Republicans, but you can bet some demagogues in the GOP's legislative caucus will squeal over any effort to shift the state's priorities from punishment to rehabilitation -- even if it makes economic sense.
• Don't you think it's perfect timing -- just as Oklahoma endures more than its share of extreme weather swings -- that Sen. Jim Inhofe announces he has finished writing a book on climate change called "The Hoax"? Thirty-one degrees below zero in Nowata, 28 below in Bartlesville, 27 inches of snow near Spavinaw in 24 hours -- are you serious? Wonder how many Crayons and Big Chiefs he needed?
• Did you take more than a casual look at Gov. Fallin's proposed budget? Her spending blueprint looks quite moderate -- proposing efficiencies to offset almost half the $600 million budget hole and imposing smaller-than-expected cuts.
• The Legislature, of course, will ultimately decide how the money's allocated. But as a Republican governor working with a GOP Legislature, Fallin would be expected to have considerable input. If nothing else, the proposed budget gives a sense of Fallin's priorities, including education, public safety and health and human services.
• The Tulsa-based Oklahoma Policy Institute offers excellent primers on the governor's proposals and analyses of the state's budget crises at www.okpolicy.org.
• Did you catch the news item that an Oklahoma City senator introduced legislation, SB 573, that would allow for the use of medical marijuana with a doctor's recommendation?
Fifteen states and the District of Columbia already have humane, compassionate laws that enable the sick and terminally ill to be comforted by marijuana. But don't expect redneck Oklahoma to join them. We may consider ourselves a devout populace, but far too many would rather their neighbors and relatives suffer agonizing deaths than open the door to demon weed.
Sen. Connie Johnson deserves praise for her proposal, even though it's DOA. Three decades ago, I watched a dear aunt suffer a long, agonizing death by cancer. At the time California had no medical marijuana provision. Her family risked prosecution, securing pot, mixing it with butter and spreading it on crackers for her. It was a godsend.
If it's under a doctor's supervision and strictly regulated, why not let compassion rule? Some may attempt to abuse the system, but in all likelihood, they're already doing so. We don't outlaw prescription pain medications just because some use them illegally.
Wasn't it weird -- and more than a little disconcerting -- to know the Tulsa World wouldn't be on your doorstep during the first round of snow? I've lived in Oklahoma much of my life and can't remember weather thwarting the printed word.
Even the Daily Disappointment, aka Oklahoma City's Oklahoman, continued to publish a printed edition, despite the snowfall. It was part of my morning adventure to slip out front in the Arctic weather and retrieve my Oklahoman, tucked into a gray plastic bag. The yellow bag of my Tulsa World, of course, was nowhere to be found.
I'm not averse to technology. I love computers. I own an iPad -- and, yes, I use it daily. But I confess I'm an ink-stained wretch -- nothing quite like slipping into the easy chair with my newspaper and a cup of joe.
Somehow I can't imagine the folks in Chicago or Philadelphia, Denver or Boston, New York or Minneapolis without their printed newspapers, even when the snow sets records. I know they're better equipped to make the roads passable -- and safer -- than we are, but there are way too many newspaper readers who are older, aren't necessarily plugged-in online and who depend on the printed version.
Here's what I know: More than a few publishers in this country would like to abandon their print versions altogether, the sooner the better. Why? It enhances their bottom lines. Publishing on-line is a fraction of the cost of publishing on newsprint, paying (often unionized) printers and distributing it the old-fashioned way, via individual carriers.
The reality is, many publishers will only produce a print edition so long as they have to. The minute they calculate they can make more money by eliminating it, they will.
I'm old enough to remember when the great newspaper families in America viewed their enterprises as a public trust. Yes, they served themselves -- often promoting their ideologies and their economic self interests. But many also viewed their efforts through the prism of civic responsibility, believing an informed citizenry strengthens democracy.
Was the recent print-free World simply a response to extraordinary weather circumstances? Or was it a trial run? Stay tuned.
-Arnold Hamilton is editor of The Oklahoma Observer; www.okobserver.net
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