Monday, February 20, 2017

Oklahoma needs a better long term budget plan!

Weekly Opinion Editorial
by Steve Fair
     Last week, Lt. Governor Todd Lamb resigned from Governor Mary Fallin’s cabinet, where he served as the Small Business Advocate.  Lamb will still be Oklahoma’s Lt. Governor.  The cabinet position and the Lt. Governor’s job are separate.  Lamb said he couldn’t support Fallin’s plan to increase taxes on services that are currently not subject to state taxes.  Fallin plans to start taxing plumbing, barbers and attorneys and 160 more services. 
     Lamb said: “Governor Fallin deserves to have someone in her cabinet who can be a strong advocate for her agenda, and that is something I am unwilling to do.  While I respect the determination with which Governor Fallin met her obligation to present a balanced budget to the legislature, I cannot support her proposed tax increases.  This proposal will adversely harm Oklahoma’s small businesses and families, especially those in our service industry.  While Governor Fallin and I have disagreed on issues from time-to-time, our differences on this important topic are so significant they preclude me from continuing to serve on her cabinet.”
     Fallin responded by issuing the following statement:  “I was disappointed and surprised to learn from a press release that Lt. Gov. Lamb had decided to quit serving as a member of my Cabinet.   I have always valued Todd’s independent voice. I valued it when we first came into office when we dealt with a similar financial crisis and I value his independent voice today. I’ve never been afraid to have dissenting voices at the table. I think the people of Oklahoma benefit from that. There will always be a seat at the table for his independent voice.  Leading a state is never easy, especially when there are so many challenges and we are faced with a prolonged economic downturn. But through ideas, hard work, long hours and making tough decisions, we can find solutions to those challenges our state faces. We have to.  As governor, I have provided a reality check of doing the same thing over and over with the structural deficits of our budget and expecting a different outcome. If we want to educate our children, a teacher pay raise and ensure the health and public safety of our citizens as well as improve our roads and bridges, we must fix the structure of our budget so we don’t keep having budget shortfalls and uncertainty.”  Word is that Fallin’s Chief of Staff met with Lamb’s Chief of Staff before the press release and told him Lamb was resigning from the cabinet, so evidently there is a communication breakdown in the Guv’s office.  Three thoughts:
     First, Lamb’s action took courage, a trait rare for politicos.  He could have simply skipped the meetings, or sat quietly while Fallin pushed for more taxes. Resigning the cabinet position took guts.  Lamb is the preemptive favorite to be the state’s next governor and no doubt he believes staying quiet about Fallin’s tax plan wasn’t going to help his cause among primary voters in two years.  2017 is going to be a historically difficult budget year in state government and going along to get along would have been the safe play.  Lamb proved he doesn’t always play it safe- he takes risk.  The only leaders who ever make meaningful change are risk takers. They lead when everyone else follows.    
     Second, legislators have been talking a great deal about the revenue side of the ledger and not enough about the expenses.   It appears little effort has been made to actually ‘find the waste’ in Oklahoma state government.  Instead of trying to find ways to get more taxpayer money, there should be a full blown blitz to find where cuts can be made.  Churchill famously said: “We contend that for a nation to try to tax itself into prosperity is like a man standing in a bucket and trying to lift himself up by the handle.”  Oklahoma needs bold leadership, not the same old tax and spend strategy.
     Third, the legislature should craft a long term funding mechanism that takes the peaks and valleys out of the revenue stream.  Oklahoma state government has been operating hand to chin too long.  Texas deposits 75% of their oil and gas tax revenue in their Rainy Day fund and only appropriates 25%. Oklahoma government spends every dime of oil and gas production tax every year. 
    By quitting the cabinet, Lamb proved he is willing to be against increased taxation.  Now he just needs to outline his plan to balance the budget.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Politicos pay attention to those who are paying attention!

Weekly Opinion Editorial

By Steve Fair
     In Las Vegas, at the annual meeting of the National Grocers Association, former Speaker of the House John Boehner said helping run his parent’s bar prepared him for politics; “You have to learn to disagree without being disagreeable and you have to be nice to every jackass that comes through the door,” Boehner said to laughs.  Bounced from the U.S. House Speaker’s chair eighteen months ago, by what he called ‘right wing knuckleheads,’ Boehner said that neither he nor President Obama could find common ground because of the political extremist factions in both parties.   He predicted Speaker Ryan will have an easier time holding the House GOP caucus together because President Trump did so well in the ‘knuckleheads’ districts.  “They are going to have a hard time going against the POTUS and that will force them to support some legislation they have been railing against because I can assure you Trump is not as conservative as some believe,” Boehner said
     When during Q&A, a questioner railed on Trump’s choice of Betsy Devos as Secretary of Education instead of asking her question, Boehner interrupted and said, “I know Betsy Devos and have worked with her.  She is an excellent choice.”    When asked by another grocer if he supported term limits for Congress, he said no.  “We have term limits every two years-they are called elections.  When you have term limits, the staff and bureaucrats run government and not the elected officials.  If someone doesn’t like the way I represent them, they have the ability to support someone else and kick me out,”  Boehner said.  In theory, the Speaker is right, but it doesn’t work in practice. 94% of incumbents are reelected.  Money and power flows to the incumbent, making sending incumbents home very difficult.  Term limits have worked in Oklahoma and they would work at the federal level.     
     When asked about the top three issues he believes will be the most important Congress and President Trump will address, Boehner said the mounting national debt, the Affordable Care Act, and tax relief.  “We can’t keep spending more than we take in- we have to get spending under control.  Expect the replacement for the ACA to be later rather than sooner, but I do think Congress and the President will get tax relief passed,” Boehner said.  His answers were short, concise and to the point.  He seemed relaxed and unencumbered.
     When asked about former President Obama, he said their relationship was workable and cordial but not warm.   “Obama loves to lecture, instead of discuss.  I have never labored under the delusion I was the smartest man in the room, but that is who he believes he is.  When I was ousted as Speaker, he called me and said: ‘Boehner, I’m going to miss you,’ and I said, ‘Yes, you are.’  In spite of our deep ideological differences, we were trying to find common ground, but it was next to impossible because of the political extremists in both Parties,” Boehner concluded.
     “Watch what politicians do and not what they say,” he admonished when asked about Trump’s rants on social media.  “Trump is a populist- he isn’t a Party guy and this is the first time in a long time that we have ever had a POTUS who has no respect for or history with politics.  It should be interesting, because he understands how to make a deal and the fact is, politics involves making deals,” Boehner said.  
     “Will he drain the swamp?” a grocery retailer from Michigan asked Boehner.  “I don’t really know what ‘drain the swamp’ means.  I mean I know what some people think it means, but in Trump’s case I think that is just something he says to energize his base,” the former Speaker responded. 
      I have heard Boehner speak a number of times, but never as ‘unplugged’ as he was at the NGA’s annual meeting.  His candor was refreshing, his insight logical.  Instead of playing to his audience, he spoke his mind.  During the Q&A, Paula Deen (yep that one) came to a mic in the aisle and said she wasn’t political, but she loved Boehner’s wife.  He graciously accepted the compliment for his spouse, then said accurately said; ‘everyone’s political.’
     The final question for the former Speaker was from a grocer in his home state of Ohio who asked him; ‘How do we make a difference?’  “Stay engaged, not just in a civic club or charitable organization, but in a political Party.  Pay attention to what is going on around you.  I can assure you elected officials pay attention to those who pay attention,” Boehner said. 

Monday, February 6, 2017

Oklahoma voters need to have recall in their accountability toolbox!

Weekly Opinion Editorial
by Steve Fair

     The Oklahoma legislature opened the 2017 session this week.  A record number of bills were filed and will start working their way through committees.  Two districts will be without representation- Districts 28 and 75.  Both districts had their representative resign, one to take a political job and another under pressure after a special House committee recommended his expulsion.   The special election for #28 will be May 9th, so the winner will be sworn in and participate in the last three weeks of the legislative session.  No dates have been set for #75, but it’s a certainty the general election will be after session.  Dan Kirby, the Tulsa legislator who resigned under pressure, faced possible expulsion from the state House, over alleged sexual harassment charges.  Should a legislative body have the power to kick out a duly elected member elected by the people?  Many conservatives say yes and called for Kirby’s expulsion, and while clearly he is unfit for office, isn’t it the job of the people in his district to ‘drain the swamp’ and replace him, not the legislature? 
     I have long advocated that Oklahoma voters should have a ‘recall election’ option.  Term limits demands recall.  When we have ‘lame duck’ elected officials who will never face the voters again, they can do a great deal of damage in their last term.  Most often those termed out elected officials are influential and are in leadership positions.  Their last term can be either their most effective or their most destructive.  Termed out State wide elected officials and State Senators have four years after their last election to do their damage.  Voters should be able to gather names on a recall petition and make the wayward or morally bankrupt elected official face the voters again.  Now Oklahomans just have to wait them out.
     Currently 29 states have some recall provision on the books and 19 states allow for the recall of state legislators and statewide elected officials.  Only eight of those states require those seeking a recall election to show cause.   Two governors have been recalled in US history- the most recent being California Governor Gray Davis in 2003.  Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin narrowly won a recall election in 2012. 
The Founding Fathers debated the inclusion of a federal recall provision in the Constitution, but ultimately decided against it. Instead, members of Congress can be removed by expulsion, a formal vote in which two-thirds of the Senate or House of Representatives agrees to exclude the member. Only 20 Congressmen in our nation’s history have been expelled and 17 of those occurred during the Civil War over accusations of "disloyalty to the Union"
      So how would recall work?  It would be much the same as the current initiative petition process in Oklahoma or the calling for a grand jury.  There are generally four steps: (1) Apply for permission to circulate the recall petition.  This usually means the Attorney General insures the petition is legal and establishes a period of time that signatures can be gathered.  (2) Gather the required number of signatures in the prescribed timeframe, (3) Signatures are verified (only registered voters are counted), and (4) Hold the Recall election.   The most common percentage of voters required to initiate a recall is 25% of the total from the last general election.
     Some states hold what is known as a ‘simultaneous’ recall.  In order to save time and money, they ask two questions of the voters in a recall election: 1) Do you believe the official should be recalled; and 2) Who do you want to replace that official with?  If the majority of voters answer "yes" to the recall question, then the person who receives the most votes on the second question is the winner. In other states, the approval of the recall petition triggers a special recall election in which the recalled official runs against a single opponent. If more than one person wants to run, then a primary must be held.
     Recall should not be used lightly and it should never be fueled by anger over personality.  Recalls should be based on real issues and used when an elected official is clearly out of step with their constituency. 
     If Oklahoma had recall, I believe two things would happen: (1) Elected officials would pay more attention to the views of their constituents in their lame duck term- and maybe all the time, and (2)Fewer elected officials would venture off the reservation if there was the fear of a recall election. 
     Now all we need is some brave legislator to propose recall, but don’t hold your breath- few elected officials are for recall.  Likely, the only way it will happen is when voters of Oklahoma gather sufficient signatures to amend the Constitution. 

Monday, January 30, 2017


Weekly Opinion Editorial
by Steve Fair
  In December, the Oklahoma State Board of Equalization, which is made up of the Governor, Lt. Governor, State Auditor, State Treasurer, Attorney General, Superintendent of Public Instruction, and the Secretary of Agriculture met and certified the amount of money the Oklahoma legislature has to spend this year.  Because revenue is down, the board certified $869 million less than last year.  That is a -12.6% decrease from last year and comes on top of last year’s-20% shortfall.  Much of Oklahoma government revenue is based on oil and gas gross production tax and while the price of oil goes down, so does production. 
     Next week, the Oklahoma legislature convenes and this will be a challenging session, coming on the heels of last year’s challenging session.  Republicans who have been campaigning about making government smaller may be forced to do just that.   Since Republicans took control of the state legislature in 2006, very little ‘streamlining/rightsizing’ of state government has been done.  Now that tax revenue is off double digits, it is quite possible the campaign rhetoric is going to have to match what legislators actually do.
     It is disappointing when some Rs focus on only one side of the ledger- the revenue side.  Instead of identifying waste in state government, they float more and more ideas of how to get more money out of the hard working people in Oklahoma’s pockets.  The Governor has said taxing cigarettes, tattoos and car washes is likely.  Others said it is time to eliminate ‘tax credits.’  Tax credit is a deplorable term because it assumes the money is the governments before it is collected and by designating your money a ‘credit’ the government is giving you permission to keep your own money. Very Republican concept- not! 
Preston Doerflinger, the Secretary of State Finance, an appointee of the Governor, says:  “I think it’s important for everybody to realize you’re not cutting your way out of this situation. We have to have a serious conversation about revenue in this state.”  Why can’t you cut your way out of it?  Is Oklahoma government so lean and mean that no fat exists anywhere?  What if the people overwhelmingly rejected the idea of paying more taxes and those deep cuts had to be made?  Waste would have to found and eliminated.  That is how it works in business?  If there is a downturn in sales, a business doesn’t keep on spending?  They adjust expenses, lay off workers and work on building the revenue stream.  Families often have to make tough decisions when their income is reduced.  Adjustments have to be made, but when government is short on money, they just tax the people more. 
No doubt the legislature will do ‘across the board’ cuts this year as they always do and tell every state agency they need to feel the pain equally.  The problem is that one size doesn’t fit all.  Some agencies should feel the pain more than others.    The legislature will take this ‘path of least resistance’ because they say there isn’t the money and time to locate where the real waste is.  Here is a novel idea: why not fund the constitutional office charged with watching government- the State Auditor’s office- with incremental money to hire more auditors to turn over more rocks and find more waste?   That common sense idea has been presented several times and is always voted down, primarily because Gary Jones, the current Auditor, has been critical of the legislature.   The only state agency that should be getting more funding is the one that is looking out for the taxpayers. 
     Some Republicans just don’t get it.  They honestly believe taxpayers are in favor of more taxes.  They prance around with ideas to give raises to public school teachers, judges, state agency heads, and bureaucrats all while proclaiming they believe in ‘small government.’  They support taking more tax dollars out of our pockets so they can keep Oklahoma government up in the manner in which it has become accustomed.  With Oklahoma being so dependent on the oil/gas industry, thousands of Oklahomans have been put out of a job and those who got other jobs aren’t making as much as they were before.  How many state employees has Oklahoma government cut during that same period?  Guaranteed, it was nothing like the private sector. 
      Oklahoma government doesn’t have too little of the taxpayer’s money-  they have too much.  They mismanage the money they get.  Call your state legislator today and tell them you are not in favor of any tax increase until they start working on the spending side of the ledger first.