Oklahoma’s Wisconsin Issues

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The underlying principle behind so-called “tort reform” here can be seen in what’s going on in Wisconsin and other states when it comes to individual and worker rights.

What’s happening is this: States dominated by Republican legislatures and governors are attacking the rights and livelihoods of ordinary middle-class people—and I mean ALL people, not just state workers—while protecting or enhancing the interests of corporations and wealthy people.

Oklahoma has so far avoided Wisconsin-like protests and political conflict, but that doesn’t mean Republican political leaders here aren’t trying to balance the state budget on the backs of workers and educators or that they aren’t pushing for corporate amnesty when it comes to lawsuits. It also doesn’t mean that people won’t someday stand up here in Oklahoma. (Read about how Oklahoma legislators are trying to do away with collective bargaining.)

The Oklahoma Legislature is considering several bills related to lawsuits. One of the bills would cap noneconomic damages at $250,000. This follows a bill passed in 2009 and signed into law by former Gov. Brad Henry that capped such damages at $400,00, with some exceptions.

The more the government caps lawsuit damages, the less access ordinary people will have to a jury trial if they have been injured because of malfeasance. That’s not even debatable. That’s what GOP leaders here and elsewhere want: fewer lawsuits and less money paid in damages, primarily by insurance companies. But the right to a jury trial is fundamental in this country. It helps create a system of checks and balances. Republicans want to dismantle this system so corporations can go unchecked.

Back in 2006, I wrote this about the “tort reform” movement:

There is no such thing as a “tort reform” movement in Oklahoma or elsewhere. What we have is a movement to reward rich people at the expense of ordinary, middle-class Okies, who, if this movement is successful, will no longer get fully compensated for injuries due to negligence.

. . . There is no such thing as “tort reform.” That phrase is a lie passed around by the Republican Party to make sure rich people get even more money. If you buy into it, you are only hurting yourself and family.

This is as valid today as it was five years ago, with an important caveat. Bit by bit, here and elsewhere, the right to a civil jury trial and fair compensation for individuals has been eroded. Do you think the GOP will stop at a $250,000 cap? What will happen next year or the year after that? What about forbidding all civil lawsuits for damages? Could it go that far?

Another heinous bill dealing with limiting people’s rights would force juries to consider the defendant’s other sources of compensation (health insurance, life insurance, etc.) and subtract that from any damage awards. Thus, a company could well go unchecked for malfeasance because an individual was prudent enough to purchase life insurance.

The Oklahoman editorial page, a longtime advocate for lawsuit caps, recently argued this:

A cap on non-economic damages may result in lower settlements for victims and lower fees for trial lawyers, but the greater good is at stake. States that refuse to limit punitive damages are at a disadvantage in competing with states that have caps. This includes the recruitment and retention of physicians and the image projected to the business community.

Follow the logic here. Everyone else is taking away people’s rights so we should, too, because of the “image projected to the business community.” It’s a race to the bottom for “the greater good.” Also, the medical malpractice argument has always been a red herring. There are ways the government could work to reduce insurance costs for physicians without stripping people of their rights and allowing corporations to go unchecked.

As the corporate apologists build up steam in the state legislature this session, the governor has called for a 3 percent cut in education and social services and a 5 percent cut for other agencies to balance next year’s budget. This will mean more layoffs and furloughs for state workers, who are woefully underpaid already. This will also influence the private sector to pay lower wages and benefits for people. Oklahoma is a low-wage state. There’s not a word, not even a small chirp, about raising taxes on the state’s wealthiest citizens. In fact, the state stands poised to cut income taxes again on Jan. 1, which will primarily benefit the state’s richest people.

Oklahoma has its own “Wisconsin” issue, and it’s happening in Indiana, Ohio and other states. It’s about the continuing transfer of money to the country’s wealthiest citizens at the expense of everyone else. “Tort reform,” or, rather corporate amnesty, is a major part on the GOP assault on the middle class.

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Fake Concern For Unemployed?

Image of U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe from Talking Points Memo

Here’s U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe commenting recently on unemployment and federal stimulus money:

President Obama and the Democrats sold the American people a bill of goods. Where are the jobs? Despite White House projections, the stimulus has not helped our economy one bit. Instead, it has saddled our nation with a massive increase in deficit spending and an explosion of debt. In 2009, President Obama and Congressional Democrats promised the stimulus would bring about a full recovery and keep the unemployment below 8 percent. Now, two years later, our nation still faces a 9 percent unemployment rate and our labor market continues to suffer. To help the economy, we need to reduce government spending and peel back government over-regulation. That is the way to help the real job creators in the private sector. The White House continues to be totally out of touch with the American people.

There’s so much wrong with this statement it’s difficult to know where to begin. Let’s start with Oklahoma unemployment. The latest numbers showed Oklahoma has an unemployment rate of 6.8, still too high, but certainly much lower than the 14.5 rate in Nevada. So Inhofe simply omits any mention about the state he represents, a state that has the 10th lowest unemployment rate in the country. How many jobs were saved here by the stimulus plan? We do know that the stimulus money prevented deeper cuts in government, especially in education. The U.S. Department of Education says 367,524 jobs were funded in the education sector by stimulus money during the 2009-2010 school year. That’s the reality. I think it’s safe to claim that hundreds of more Oklahoma teachers would have lost their jobs without the extra money. Doesn’t that mean anything to Inhofe? What about the place he’s supposed to represent? Does he even care?

Second, if Inhofe is so concerned about unemployment why did he express opposition against extending benefits to the unemployed? (Read here and here.) If, as he argues, the stimulus plan has not done enough to lower unemployment, and this concerns him, then why would he work against jobless benefits? If Obama has supposedly failed the unemployed, then why would Inhofe punish them further?

Third, the idea the “we need to reduce government spending and peel back government over-regulation” in order to create jobs is about as absurd as it gets. It was under the GOP watch and conservative ideology that an under-regulated banking system took this country to the brink of another Great Depression. Sure, Democrats participated through the years in deregulating banks, but Wall Street and big corporations make up an important segment of the Republican base. What we need is more regulation and consumer protection, not less. Also, drastically cutting federal spending in a time period of low unemployment will do just the opposite of what Inhofe contends. It will increase the unemployment rate, not lower it. (Don’t forget, as well, that most Republicans only care about the federal deficit when it occurs under a Democratic presidential administration.)

Scholar George Lakoff recently wrote:

Democrats help conservatives by not shouting out loud over and over that it was conservative values that caused the global economic collapse: lack of regulation and a greed-is-good ethic.

So let’s say it again: “ . . . it was conservative values that cause the global economic collapse: lack of regulation and a greed-is-good ethic.”

Fourth, note there’s no mention of the costs of the Iraq and Afghanistan military occupations and their impact on deficits. These are the military actions Inhofe has obsessively supported and continues to support. Cost of War estimates the U.S. has spent more than $1.1 trillion on the occupations and costs continue to grow. That’s more than the $787 billion stimulus package, which also included tax reductions, passed in 2009, and again, the military costs are going to get much higher.

Finally, Inhofe’s tone in his statement is overly political and sophomoric, an obvious appeal to his own special base in Oklahoma, which includes the corporate media. His partisan rhetoric completely dismisses those who support Obama here. Note the clichés “sold the American people a bill of goods” and “out of touch with the American people.” I know partisan political rhetoric in this country is as plentiful as blackjack oak trees in Oklahoma, but for a United States Senator to use it in an official statement that supposedly expresses worry over high unemployment, which should be a non-partisan issue, shows a lack of discretion. It also marginalizes the half of million of Oklahomans who voted for Obama and those who continue to support him.

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Weather Extremism

Image of U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe

Record low and high temperatures over the last two weeks or so in Oklahoma represent a clear reminder of the extreme weather here and proof of the old adage “if you don’t like the weather, wait a minute.”

On Feb. 10, the temperature was measured at 31 degrees below zero in Nowata, a state record. About a week later, balmy temperatures broke records throughout the state. On Feb. 17, for example, the high temperature in Oklahoma City was 80 degrees, a local record. That’s a 111 degree swing—minus 31 and 80—in just a few days.

The extreme swing in temperatures made national news and no doubt produced extreme emotions in some Oklahomans.

Here are some points:

(1) So what does U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe think about the recent weather extremism here? After all, he obviously considers himself an expert on climate change, global warming and weather patterns. In 2009, Inhofe’s family even built a faux-igloo after a major snowstorm in Washington. They named it “Al Gore’s New Home” as a joke to mock the former vice president and his fight against man-made global warming. It made national news, and it pretty much represents the epitome of the GOP strategy on global warming, which goes like this: Whenever it gets really cold anywhere in the world, argue it proves global warming doesn’t exist.

One has to wonder why Inhofe didn’t make a big deal out of the Nowata low temperature, but, then, well, he would have had to deal with the record warm temperatures the following week. (Of course, he could have just ignored the record high temperatures.) The facts are these: No one weather event is proof of larger, historical weather patterns, the earth is getting warmer and some scientists have predicted severe and extreme weather is a major part of climate change.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency:

It is important to understand that directly linking any one specific extreme event (e.g., a severe hurricane) to human-caused climate change is not possible. However, climate change may increase the probability of some ordinary weather events reaching extreme levels or of some extreme events becoming more extreme.

I won’t make the mistake of arguing the extreme swing in temperatures can be related to climate change, but wouldn’t it be ironic if 100 years from now scientists determined that extreme weather events in Oklahoma in recent years and in the future were a part of overall climate change at the same time Inhofe led the campaign against the “hoax” of global warming?

Also, don’t forget Oklahoma ranks third in disaster declarations by the Federal Emergency Management System (FEMA). As I wrote earlier:

The state has received 66 disaster declarations, which means it ranks behind the large states of California, 84, and Texas, 77. Oklahoma has a population of 3.7 million and ranks 20th in terms of land size. By comparison, California, the most populated state, has 37.2 million people and is the third largest state in terms of land size. Texas, the second largest state in terms of size, has a population of 25.1 million.

What this means on a practical level—as if longtime state residents don’t know—is that Oklahoma has some of the worst and catastrophic weather in the entire nation. Tornadoes, blizzards, hail, ice storms, flooding and fires wreak havoc here on a regular basis, and our per capita FEMA disaster ratio is astronomical.

President Barack Obama recently approved a FEMA disaster declaration for Oklahoma because of the snow.

(2) I also wonder about the emotional swings in people as they go from frigid temperatures and snow to t-shirt-and-shorts weather in just a few days. I know some people enjoy cold weather and snow, but for many of us it’s a hassle when it comes to staying warm, driving on ice and feeling cooped-up. The point is we went from the blues of the cold to the celebration of just about perfect weather in a week’s time. So does the weather shape us psychologically here? It’s difficult to argue that it doesn’t have at least some impact in terms of mood and maybe even overall mental health. Perhaps, we need more specific research studies about this issue in Oklahoma, especially given its severe weather. This doesn’t just apply to cold weather, of course, but also to tornadoes, hailstorms, flooding, wildfires, etc., which can strike suddenly, cause a major disaster and then leave suddently.

(3) The last point is that the record high temperatures pushed the frigid, snowy weather down the memory hole, but we should debate the question of whether this state needs more snow plows and more extensive plowing, even in residential areas, during major storms. I know this issue gets debated briefly every time there’s a major snowstorm, but it just remains status quo, and then the weather gets warm. Would the investment of new equipment be worth it? Can we determine the financial costs of lost working and school hours and compare it to the cost of new equipment. How many more plows would we need? And, finally, how and when do we determine if the state will face more major winter weather events in the future?

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