Oklahoma Politics

Joe Dorman, Mary Fallin and Storm Shelters

Image of Joe DormanImage of Mary Fallin

Barring a major scandal or a sudden seismic change in the political landscape here, it appears Gov. Mary Fallin should coast easily to victory in her reelection bid.

At least that’s the prevailing view among national and local pundits, even though it might be difficult to handle for some Democrats, but there’s little to no evidence to dispute this basic political argument.

Fallin’s approval ratings, according to SoonerPoll, have gone over 70 percent in a red state that remains deeply hostile to President Barack Obama by a majority of voters. The anti-Obama hysteria alone, fueled by a complicit corporate media here, means any Democrat would have a difficult time defeating Fallin or winning any statewide office.

The governor also has a well-funded campaign along with political expertise and experience in running for statewide office. She has deep political connections and the ability to use her office to serve constituents in ways that could generate loyalty and support.

This doesn’t mean Democrats should just give up, of course, and state Rep. Joe Dorman, a term-limited Rush Springs Democrat, has declared his candidacy for his position. But can Dorman really make a dent in Fallin’s popularity? Does he have a chance?

Dorman faces two apparent obstacles right now.

One, he has to be viewed as a conservative Democrat, a legislator who, for example, has consistently opposed reproductive rights for Oklahoma women. While Dorman might capture the lesser-of-two-evil votes from Democrats, he’s unlikely to generate enthusiasm from progressives or even some moderates. This could hurt him in campaign fund raising efforts and voter turnout. If he turns to the right even more in his campaign, he risks losing any opportunity to show how he would lead the state any differently than Fallin.

Second, Dorman has now made his effort to build storm shelters in every Oklahoma school a major part of his political campaign. Dorman wants the state to use money from a business franchise tax to fund the shelters, a position that seems reasonable enough given last year’s devastating tornadoes. But now Fallin has announced an initiative to allow individual school districts to raise their bond debt capacities, if approved by voters, to fund the shelters, thus co-opting what has now become Dorman’s signature issue. The arguments between the two approaches probably rest on an extremely fine line for most voters, but that hasn’t stopped Dorman from pressing his point.

The Oklahoman editorial board calls Dorman’s arguments about the storm shelters “class envy,” which is supposed to mean something I guess, especially to its low-income conservative readers, but here’s the main issue: Every Oklahoma school needs a storm shelter. There are two plans to address this issue. Either plan could conceivably work.

I have long been a vocal proponent of getting storm shelters in our schools and other buildings, and I do agree that the franchise tax would be the easiest way to do it. But I can’t just dismiss Fallin’s approach. Even if Dorman’s proposal made it to the ballot, for example, the business community here, along with basic Republican support, would probably unite to try to defeat it. Imagine some prominent Oklahoman in a television advertisement arguing, over and over ad nauseam on our screens, to “just say no” to this state question. It has happened before.

Dorman still has time to mount a feasible campaign. He should reach out to progressive and moderate Democrats on issues such as education and health. Fallin’s proposed budget calls for a nearly $50 million cut in higher education, which could lead to higher tuition rates. Her budget also calls for a nearly $48 million cut to the Oklahoma Health Care Authority. Dorman should vehemently oppose such cuts as well as Fallin’s proposed tax cut that would primarily benefit the wealthiest people in the state. Voters want a champion, not a whiner.

There’s no particular reason for Dorman to drop the storm shelter issue, but I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that Fallin has politically out-maneuvered him on the issue, which was easy enough to do as an incumbent governor. That alone won’t win her the election, of course, but Dorman needs to shore up the support from his potential base, and that’s going to entail more than just talking about storm shelters.

Who Will Run?

Image of James LankfordImage of Jim Roth

U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn’s decision to retire early from the Senate has so far set off a flurry of commitments and considerations for both his seat and the 5th District Congressional seat now held by U.S. Rep. James Lankford.

Lankford, pictured far right, has announced he’s running for Coburn’s seat, which means he has to give up his Congressional seat, which is up for re-election as well. At this point, he seems like a frontrunner for the position, but that could change. Conservative groups, such as the Senate Conservatives Fund and Club For Growth are indicating they won’t support Lankford for the position.

Oklahoma House Speaker T.W. Shannon, a Lawton Republican, has announced he’s considering a run for the Senate seat. U.S. Rep. Jim Bridenstine of the 1st District Congressional seat has been mentioned as a candidate as well.

Is there an opportunity for Democrats or even real progressives wedged into this new political mix somehow? Will more positions open up as other office holders announce they will run for Coburn’s seat?

The answers, in order: Probably not, and we’ll know soon enough. Serious candidates for Coburn’s seat will need to commit much earlier than the April 11 filing deadline if they want to have a chance of winning.

I can at least envision (perhaps, “dream” is the right word) the unlikely scenario in which a big-name Democrat, such as former Gov. Brad Henry, runs for the Senate seat, and the Republicans splinter in the primary because of Tea Party squabbles, leaving them with a weak candidate in the general election. But that’s probably wishful thinking.

Democrats might have a better chance for Lankford’s Congressional seat. Democrat Tom Guild is already in the race. There’s a grassroots movement to get Democrat Jim Roth, a former Corporation Commissioner, pictured right, to run as well. On the Republican side those mentioned as possible candidates include State Sen. Clark Jolley of Edmond, Oklahoma Corporation Commissioner Patrice Douglas, former state legislators Steve Russell of Oklahoma and Shane Jett of Tecumseh. Let’s don’t forget that Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett once ran for the seat. Would he do it again?

Again, it’s possible that a crowded Republican field in the primary election could result in a winning GOP candidate that’s not as appealing in the general election. That’s why it’s important Democrats elect the strongest candidate possible in the primary.

If Shannon does run for the Senate seat that could change the dynamic in this year’s legislative session.

In the end, though, the “Obama effect” may well doom any U.S. Senate or House campaign for any Democrat in Oklahoma. Anyone with even a small chance of winning knows this reality far too well. That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t run in order to present alternative views to the conservative dogma here, but a Democratic victory in either of these races or in even other races if more Republican office holders decide to run would be a major upset.

Teachers Beware: Pension Politics Could Jeopardize Retirement Benefits

Satirical image from Old American Century

With so much at stake for so many, it’s simply wrong that Republicans Gov. Mary Fallin and Oklahoma Treasurer Ken Miller are working together at the last minute to streamline Oklahoma’s pension plans this legislative session without allowing adequate input from stakeholders.

The Oklahoma Legislature adjourns at the end of the month, and leaders are even hinting at an earlier conclusion, but news reports are only now surfacing that Fallin and Miller have nearly reached a deal or developed a proposal.

What that deal might be is a little bit difficult to ascertain, but it’s highly probable that any proposal would try to reduce the state’s costs in some manner and, given the current ideology in power at the Capitol, possibly shift more costs to pension holders and/or reduce their benefits. At the state Capitol these days, “reform” always means less for ordinary Oklahomans and more for the state’s wealthiest citizens.

In other words, what won’t happen is the honorable thing, and that is for the state government to simply meet its basic commitment to adequately fund the state’s seven pension plans, which now face an $11 billion liability.

Two major contentious issues have emerged. One is to streamline the management of all the plans under one board, an idea that is adamantly opposed by the Oklahoma State Firefighter’s Association. The second one is to somehow begin to change the overall system for new workers from a defined benefit plan to a defined contribution plan, which should worry anyone with a sense of logic. How can you change the system in this way for new workers in a state like Oklahoma without jeopardizing the future benefits of those currently enrolled in one of the systems?

The Oklahoma Education Association has issued a legislative alert about the matter because teachers fall under the woefully underfunded Oklahoma Teachers Retirement System (OTRS), and, on a personal note, I’ve had discussions with current teachers who are extremely concerned they will face reduced benefits when they retire. (Full disclosure: As a professor, I currently pay into the OTRS.) Our state teachers, some of the lowest paid instructors in the nation, working in some of the most underfunded schools in the nation, SHOULD be concerned.

There is no question that the overall liability of the pension plans is a problem, but the real culprit has been the lack of funding for the plans over the years. Our legislators have been more interested in cutting taxes for the state’s wealthiest citizens than honoring basic commitments to teachers, first responders and social workers.

Even as Miller, in particular, talks about the dire need for pension change, the legislature is considering tax cuts spread out over two years beginning in 2015.

Miller, in one news report, claims he and Fallin have been transparent and should have some specific legislation to offer next week.

But why wait until the last minute? It appears to be a political tactic to prevent groups interested in the issue to mobilize in protest. Politics has always been a dirty business in Oklahoma, but this political move, if it happens, is extreme by any standards, especially given Fallin’s undying support for a tax cut.

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