POSTED ON SEPTEMBER 14, 2011:
Empty Words, Full Accounts
Former Oklahoma officeholders are still on the state's payroll
My incredible -- seriously -- mother-in-law was a plain, blunt-spoken woman. She was fond of saying "actions speak louder than words," a truism oft-repeated by her daughter when making a point with me.
It's also an appropriate standard to apply to our elected leaders. Our collective cynicism is fueled in no small measure by officeholders who campaign one way and govern another.
As we review poll after poll showing America's trust for its government at historic lows, what is especially disconcerting is that rank-and-file folk have come to expect the hypocrisy, the half-truths, the out-right lies.
It wasn't always so.
Perhaps my memory recalls the past better than it was, but it seems the general public -- not all, but most -- was stunned when it learned President Eisenhower hadn't come clean immediately on the Gary Powers, U-2 spy plane incident.
And I can remember vividly how stunned we were, driving in our car across a remote stretch of Arizona, listening to Richard Nixon's resignation address on the radio -- the president of the United States felled by a two-bit burglary and cover-up, born of political paranoia.
This cancer in the body politic came to mind the other day when considering how Republicans -- who seized complete control of state government last year -- campaigned and how they governed.
In a nutshell, they campaigned for years as small-government outsiders, private business people willing to sacrifice personal ambition and bottom lines in order to help right the ship of state -- which, of course, Democrats had crashed, at least in part by refusing to let go of the public teat.
So what have Republicans done since they assumed power? The same damn thing for which they excoriated Democrats -- latching onto high-paying government jobs after leaving elective office.
I can only imagine how disillusionment among many libertarian-leaning, conservative Republicans. They no doubt thought they were electing true believers who would get in, cut government down to size and get out, back to the private sector.
Instead, it's the same old perfidy.
Lest you think I'm painting with too broad a brush, consider these examples:
--Former House Republican Caucus Leader John Wright of Broken Arrow was term-limited from the Legislature after last year. So, first, he ran for lieutenant governor -- but lost in the primary. Then he took a newly-created position with the Tulsa County Assessor as "director of programs" at an annual salary of $72,000 -- about twice the state's individual median income.
Wright was back in the news recently when it was learned his income jumped nearly $12,000 in the nine months since he was first hired -- because of monthly raises for "advanced accreditation" and assuming more duties.
--Former Tulsa Sen. Jim Williamson is being paid $90,000 a year as senior policy advisor and legal counsel to Senate President Pro Tem Brian Bingman of Sapulpa. Williamson served six years in the state House in the 1980s and 12 more in the state Senate, forced to leave office by term limits in 2008.
--Three former lawmakers joined the office of first-year state Insurance Commissioner John Doak as deputy commissioners -- salaries that range from $67,900 to $92,000, according to the Office of State Finance.
None had any insurance expertise before bellying back up to the taxpayers' trough: Former Sen. Randy Brogdon had a wholesale air-conditioning business, former Rep. Mike Thompson was in real estate and former Sen. Owen Laughlin was in banking.
Not only do they enjoy reasonably nice salaries by Oklahoma standards and all the state benefits such as health care, but they also are driving their state pensions into the stratosphere.
State pensions are based on the last three years of work prior to retirement. Since their incomes are significantly higher as deputy commissioners than they were as lawmakers, they stand to really cash in on their post-legislative careers.
Even more troubling: These hires flaunt a provision in the state Constitution that prohibits legislators from working for a state agency within two years of leaving office.
How did they pull it off? By finding a loophole -- affirmed by the attorney general -- that ex-lawmakers were not bound by the prohibition if their salaries are paid from private or federal funds, not state-appropriated dollars (which, of course, they voted on).
That hardly fits the spirit of the cooling off period. It was designed to keep legislators from setting up cushy, post-elective office careers for themselves in state agencies.
It's at the heart of the criminal case against state Rep. Randy Terrill, R-Moore, and former state Sen. Debbe Leftwich, D-Oklahoma City. They allegedly conspired to create a golden parachute for Leftwich (an $80,000 a year position in the state Medical Examiner's office) if she would not seek re-election -- giving Republicans a better shot at picking up the seat.
Adhering strictly to the spirit of the cooling-off period would erase any suggestion of funny business.
Now, I'm not saying I'm automatically opposed to legislators serving elsewhere in state government. In fact, I think it's a shame that some of our best lawmakers are automatically shown the door by term limits -- regardless of whether their constituents think they're doing a good job. Some may be perfect to help run a state agency or college.
It's true that the revolving door favored Democrats when they held the levers of power. Think of all the former Dems who ended up as college presidents, including former Gov. George Nigh at the University of Central Oklahoma, former House Speaker Glen Johnson (now the state's higher education chancellor) at Southeastern State and former state Rep. Don Davis at Cameron University. None are in those positions now, but all were given mostly high marks for their presidencies.
Another former state Sen. Howard Hendrick, an Oklahoma City Republican, heads the state's Department of Human Services, a thankless task. Despite spectacular failures in the child welfare system, in particular, in recent years, Hendrick deserves support. He's a good man, with a big heart, doing his best in an imperfect world.
Here's what really bothers me about all these recent examples of Republicans taking post-legislative positions in the taxpayer-financed public sector: It's the hypocrisy.
Every last one of them campaigned as small government conservatives and proudly declared their fealty to the free enterprise, private sector.
It's important that all voters remember my mother-in-law's admonition: actions speak louder than words. To that I would add: "Watch what they do, not what they say."
--Arnold Hamilton is editor of The Oklahoma Observer; okobserver.net
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