Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Is It a "Step Up" ... or a Step Down?

Oklahoma must pass a teacher pay raise plan. But why would anyone think that the term limits of our governor and our legislators have anything to do with it? And after the way things have gone at the Capitol these past few years, why would anyone want to let the same legislators stay in office longer?

Beats me! But the people supporting the “Step Up Oklahoma” plan have correlated a measure to raise teacher pay with one to increase our legislators’ term limits. Am I the only one who finds this ironic? Or counterproductive?

According to its website, http://stepupoklahoma.com, the plan would raise the salaries of Oklahoma teachers and principals by $5,000. Sounds good, right? Our teachers need it. Haven’t had a raise in years. The promise that their pay would be kept at the regional average was broken. How many times? I don’t know. I’ve lost track.  During the 2017 session of the Oklahoma Legislature, elected officials promised a teacher pay raise. And broke it. So, finally, someone came up with a to-the-point, fiscally wise, non-political plan to enact that raise, right?


The plan has been touted as a way to help Oklahoma education. But its components suggest that it’s more of a political “power-grab” than a well-meaning attempt to foster Oklahoma’s system of education. And the funding for the teacher pay increase isn’t going to be found by using the billions of untouched dollars that the state currently has; it’s going to be found by raising taxes.

The lengthening of term-limits is one of the components. Currently, legislators can only serve a cumulative total of 12 years in the Legislature. (For example, a legislator could serve four years in the Senate and eight in the House, and then he’s done.) But the “Step Up” plan aims to “up” that number to 16. Why? The plan doesn’t explain the motive for this, leaving us to decide whether it’s to allow “experienced” legislators to remain in office to help make good decisions … or whether it’s to allow them to protect their own special interests. The choice of the word “revise” is, in this case, an understatement. Perhaps the phrase “Revise term limits” should be replaced with the words “Enable career politicians.” After all, look at what having the same guys in Congress for 30 years has done!

The plan also calls for “Increased Accountability for State Agencies/Streamline Agency Boards.” The title alone sounds foreboding, and it seems to contradict itself. This measure would take away Oklahomans’ ability to vote for certain elected officials, including the Superintendent of Public Instruction and the Labor Commissioner. Instead, those officials would be hand-picked by the governor. The plan says that this move would “increase accountability to citizens by granting the Governor direct appointment power over the eight largest state agencies and dissolve those agency boards.” But how is agency oversight strengthened by eliminating the agency’s board of directors? It seems like it’d be harder for one person – the governor – to oversee eight state agencies by himself than it would be for each agency to have its own board of directors. Oversight is strengthened by having more people doing the overseeing – not fewer!

And the most blatant problem that could be caused if this measure is enacted: What happens if the governor at the time appoints another person like Janet Barresi to run the Department of Education? Don’t we all remember that train-wreck?

And the plan doesn’t stop there. It also calls for changes to the selection process for members of the state Supreme Court. What would this change be, you ask? Simple. The Supreme Court districts would be changed. Just like the boundaries of legislative districts have been gerrymandered in recent years to ensure that only one political party can win the election. Now, I’ll concede that the Supreme Court districts could benefit from change. But it ought to be decided by a public vote, not one taken by the Legislature. Because we all know the effects that money can have on politicians.

I sit here and ask myself, “Why have so many vastly different measures been ‘logrolled’ into this?” But I remind myself that I’m not debating whether logrolling is good or not: I’m debating whether – rather, how much – the components of this plan will harm our state. The developers of this plan prioritized something other than helping our teachers.

But despite the issue that many of the plan’s components will foster bureaucracy, it’s been heavily endorsed - by lawyers, oil executives, and retired politicians. Mike Turpen – attorney; Allen Wright, Devon Energy; Brad Henry, former governor. On that note, all five of Oklahoma’s former living governors have endorsed it. All of the people I’ve just mentioned – and many more – have endorsed it as well. And that’s their choice. I seek in no way to say that they are trying to harm Oklahomans by endorsing the plan.

But, who is missing from the list of endorsements? Regular people like you and me. 

“Jane Doe – teacher – Rural School. John Doe – factory worker – Small Town” … They’re not on the list. And it’s because they understand how bad this plan really would be for our state.

Our teachers deserve better. They deserve a good pay raise plan, not one that has been politicized and logrolled to China and back. And on a much larger note, our state government does need reform. But it needs to be the kind of reform that you and I affect by selecting new legislators and department leaders. And most importantly, a teacher pay raise can be accomplished without raising taxes and robbing our citizens of their hard-earned money! There’s a $5,000 pay raise plan proposed by state representatives that would use a small portion of the untouched $2.3 billion in the Oklahoma school land commission’s permanent trust fund! I’ve talked about that fund a lot. And you won’t find logrolling in that plan – just a smart way to raise teacher pay. We need that plan. And you and I can help ensure that it’s the one our leaders vote for.

Perhaps the “Step Up” plan would best be entitled the “Step Down” plan.

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