Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Let the Weeping & Wailing Begin!

Weekly Opinion Editorial
by Steve Fair

Sequestration was originally a legal term referring to property being taken by a court and placed in a safe place.  But Congress uses the term to describe policy procedure that reduces the federal budget as a result of Gramm-Rudman-Hollings Act of 1985.  By the way, Social Security and the Food Stamp program are exempt from the across the board cuts.

Sequestration involves setting a hard cap on the amount of government spending and if Congress appropriates amounts that exceeds these caps, then across-the-board spending cuts, affecting all departments and programs by an equal percentage, go into automatic effect. 

President Obama wants Congress to act and vote to stop the automatic cuts from going into effect.  He has taken his case directly to the American people with a show stopping performance worthy of an Oscar.   

In a meeting with the nation’s Governors on Sunday, the President told them, “This morning you received a report outlining exactly how these cuts will harm middle class families in your states.  Thousands of teachers and educators will be laid off; tens of thousands of parents will have to deal with finding childcare for their children. Hundreds of thousands of Americans will lose access to primary care and preventative care like flu vaccinations and cancer screenings.” Louisiana’s Governor Bobby Jindal, a Republican, doesn’t buy it. “I think he’s trying to scare the American people,” Jindal said.
If the President is trying to scare the American people, it appears to be working. In a recent Pew-Washington Post poll, forty five percent of the those polled said that if the cuts go into effect, Republicans are to blame because they control the U.S. House.  A third said they would blame the President and thirteen percent said they would blame both parties.   

On Saturday evening in Tulsa, four of Oklahoma’s five Congressmen spoke at the Oklahoma Republican Party annual delegation dinner.  Based on their statements, it appears sequestration will happen.  The Oklahoma delegation- all Republicans- appear to be firm in their resolve to not buckle under the pressure to stop the cuts and to raise taxes.   

“They(Obama and the Democrats) are trying to stampede us,” Congressman Frank Lucas said. “Washington doesn’t have a revenue problem- we have a spending problem,”   

Congressman James Langford “The debt problem in this country is no longer something that will inpact your children and grandchildren- it’s a real threat to you.  This year the federal government will take in more revenue than ever before.”

Congressman Tom Cole said,  “Sequestion should be modified, not canceled.    It’s not hard to find examples of wasteful government spending. Across the board cuts is not the best way, but it does cut spending.”

Freshman Congressman Jim Bridenstein said, “My concern and I think the concern of a lot of Republicans in Congress, is that once the sequester takes effect, people ware going to be screaming for a deal and that deal ultimately is going to be what the president wants- to raise taxes.” 

Congressman Mark Wayne Mullin, who did not attend the dinner, said in a statement, “Reigning in federal spending and balancing our budget isn’t about Republicans or Democrats – it’s about America.  Those in Washington are unwilling to make tough decisions so their answer is to cut everyone in an effort to seem fair. That is not good government.”

Three observations:

First, the automatic cuts that will go into effect March 1st are just 0.5% of U.S. GDP.  And remember a cut in a government budget is only the projected increase in spending, not what we are currently spending, so many agencies may actually get more money than they have gotten the previous year.  Why can’t the federal government run on less money?  We have to.  The Congressional Budget Office says the cuts will reduce economic growth in the short run, but it says they will increase economic growth in the long run by cutting the federal government’s debt burdens.

Second, at what point are congressional Democrats going to step up to the plate and admit the federal government has a major problem with spending?  The Ds solution is always to raise taxes to higher levels, which has been proven throughout history to destroy nations. 

Third, across the board cuts are wrong because they penalize government agencies that do a good job with their resources and reward those who squander our tax dollars. When it comes to cuts, one size doesn’t fit all.  Identifying and eliminating waste in government is the right solution.

The bottom line is we better be prepared to make some sacrifices (personally and collectively) if we expect America to survive.  Let the weeping and wailing begin!

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

The Legacy is Gone!

Weekly Opinion Editorial

The Legacy is Gone!
by Steve Fair

The legacy of the late State Senator Gene Stipe may be coming to an end.  For fifty four years, every piece of workers’ comp legislation (and most other legislation) had to be blessed by Stipe, a Democrat from McAlester before it was passed and signed into law.  What was even more bizarre was Stipe’s law firm was one of the most active in representing workers’ comp cases in the state. Can you say ‘conflict of interest?’
During his tenure in the Senate, Stipe worked to construct a workers comp system that kept lawyers involved.  For over fifty years, companies looking to locate to the state would cite Oklahoma’s high workers comp premiums as a primary reason they wouldn’t build a plant or distribution center in the state.
As far back as the mid 1970s, Oklahoma legislators were calling for an ‘administrative system’ that would get the attorneys out of workers comp.  In a 1976 editorial, The Oklahoman said Stipe had been the “author of every major piece of workers comp since 1949. “  They went on to say Oklahoma needed to get the lawyers out of the system.

In an article in The Oklahoman in 1985, Ed Estes, plant manager of Uniroyal in Ardmore, was quoted as saying during an appearance before a legislative committee;  It’s(Worker Comp) an impediment to getting new industry into the state.  My plants safety improved 33% but our workers compensation costs went up 58%. 

The Oklahoma legislature has been nibbling around the edges of workers compensation reform for years, but it appears real workers comp reform may be in sight.  On Monday Senate President Pro Tempore Brian Bingman, (R-Sapulpa) and State Senator Anthony Sykes, (R-Moore) unveiled SB #1062 which if signed into law would move Oklahoma to a workers comp system similar to that found in Arkansas.
The bill is titled, ‘The Administrative Workers’ Compensation Act,’ and would reduce the cost of workers’ compensation premiums to employers and make sure injured workers receive quality medical care in a timely manner by implementing an administrative system.

Bingman described Oklahoma’s workers’ compensation costs as a drag on Oklahoma’s economy. “The biggest roadblock to a stronger economy in Oklahoma is our adversarial workers’ compensation system,” said Bingman, R-Sapulpa. “Worse yet, our adversarial system doesn’t do a very good job of helping injured workers get the care they need to get healed and back to work. The system is designed to reward trial lawyers for dragging cases out and delaying outcomes as long as possible.”

Sykes, chair of the Judiciary Committee and co-author of the measure, learned first-hand about the benefits of an administrative system on a fact-finding trip to Arkansas. “The Arkansas system is a model for states that want a system designed to help injured workers get the care they need without delay,” said Sykes. “Oklahoma’s small business owners care about their employees, and they know they wouldn’t be successful without them. I believe this system is the right solution for employees, and it’s good for business.”

According to a recent national survey of workers comp systems, Oklahoma employers pay 2.8% of their payroll for workers compensation insurance.  In Arkansas, employers pay less than half that- 1.2%.  Oklahoma’s workers comp premium rates are nearly 50% more than national average. 
 Bingman said in addition to reducing costs for business, SB 1062 will generate better outcomes for injured workers. An administrative system will resolve cases based on an evaluation of the merits of the case and objective medical evidence. Under the current judicial system, employees are often pitted against their employer in litigation proceedings characterized by dueling trial lawyers and dueling doctors.

With Republicans holding super majorities in both chambers and a Republican Governor, it appears Oklahoma’s powerful trial lawyer lobby is about to be shown the exit on workers comp and it is about time.

The Sooner state is centrally located geographically.  We have great people and a mild climate.  Okahoma should be a magnet for distribution centers and manufacturing plants, but in the past, our high workers comp premiums kept companies from coming here.  Let’s hope the legislature removes a major impediment to doing business in Oklahoma and finally passes true workers comp reform.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

President's Day!

Weekly Opinion Editorial
Monday February 18th is President’s Day.  It wasn’t always so.  I remember when we celebrated President George Washington’s birthday on February 22nd, not on the third Monday of February so federal workers could have a long weekend.   President Abraham Lincoln’s birthday is February 12th and it is still a legal holiday in eight(8) states.  

In 1968, Congress was determined to create a system of federal Monday holidays and could have cared less about the two Presidents whose birthdays were in February.  They renamed the holiday, Presidents Day.  It wasn’t a popular decision because citizens rightly predicted that Washington and Lincoln’s identity and legacy would be lost in the change.  Now most school children are taught this is a day to honor all U.S. Presidents.  The truth is some presidents don’t deserve honoring. 

In 1999, bills were introduced in both the U.S. House and Senate  to specify that the legal public holiday once referred to as Washington's Birthday be "officially" called by that name once again. Sadly, both bills died in committee.

Actually four U.S. Presidents were born in the month of February- Washington, Harrison, Lincoln, and Reagan.  William Henry Harrison served only 32 days as president, dying of pneumonia after catching cold.  He got the cold delivering a two hour inaugural speech(still the longest in history) in freezing weather, an accomplishment not really worthy of a federal holiday.  Let’s look at the accomplishments of the other three.

Ronald Wilson Reagan is the president born in February(6th) that Americans are most familiar with.  That is because most of America lived through his two term presidency.  Reagan was an effective chief executive who restored patriotism in America.  Reagan never thought of himself as a politician. He never lusted for power or elective office. He preferred to see himself as a simple citizen who had been called upon to come to the aid of the nation he so loved. His mission, as he saw it, was to free his fellow citizens from the clutches of an overreaching federal government, and to rid the world of the tyranny of Communism.  Reagan left the White House with the highest approval rating of any modern president.  He developed Alzheimer's disease and died in 2004.  His greatest legacy is his hard line stand against the Soviet Union and the Eastern block literally brought down communism in those countries. 

Most Americans know something about Abraham Lincoln.  He is often cited as being our greatest president.  Lincoln is given credit for saving the nation and that may very well be true, but what most Americans do not know is that Lincoln was the first president to greatly expand the powers of the presidency.  Lincoln went to war without a declaration of war by Congress.  He believed the Executive branch of government was not subordinate to Congress or the courts.  He said that in times of crisis or war the President is literally responsible for the well-being and survival of the nation. Lincoln's legacy was his ability to energize and mobilize the nation by appealing to its best ideals while acting "with malice towards none" in the pursuit of an enduring Union. No president in American history ever faced a greater crisis than Lincoln and no President- before or since- has accomplished as much.

George Washington’s tenure in office set America on a path that has endured now for over 200 years.  He established precedents that have lasted for generations and did more to flesh out the skeleton of the presidential office than anyone could have expected or predicted. As one scholar says, “Washington invented tradition as he went along." His actions, more than those of any other Founding Father, became a part of the "unwritten Constitution."  Washington's established department heads in the new government, setting a precedent for today’s modern cabinet as part of the President's office.  Washington could have become a king of the new country if he had wished, but by his actions and words, he set the standard for two presidential terms. He retired to his beloved Mount Vernon to live out his last years.  Washington hated political parties and career politicians.  He said, “The people must remain ever vigilant against tyrants masquerading as public servants.”  

On Monday as you enjoy the day off, remember we are honoring men who led America in times of crisis.  Instead of just eating a piece of cherry pie or buying new sheets, pass on the reason we are honoring these men to the next generation. 

Monday, February 4, 2013

Give the Auditor more Authority!

Weekly Opinion Editorial
by Steve Fair

Today, the Oklahoma state legislature convenes their 2013 session.  The Governor will deliver the state of the state address to a joint session of the legislature.  Some of the major issues that will likely be addressed this session will be workers compensation reform, education funding, and the reduction or elimination of the state income tax.  When you throw in the water rights battle with Texas, tax credit reform, road and bridge funding, repair of the State Capitol building and prison overcrowding this session will be a busy one.

One area that must be up for discussion if we want good government is accountability.  Oklahoma government needs accountability to its citizens.  Last session a legislative bill that never reached either the Senate or the House floor for a vote would have expanded the role of the State Auditor & Inspector.  The amazing thing was the bill didn’t make its way to the floor because the leadership in the legislature ‘knew it would pass.’  That’s right- they knew that Oklahoma citizens wanted accountability and supported the expansion of the Auditor’s office, but they didn’t allow it to come to up for a vote.  That is not the type of government we need in Oklahoma.  We must have one that is responsive to the citizens.

Currently the Oklahoma State Auditor and Inspector has the constitutional authority to audit every state agency and county government agency.  Many want that expanded to include any organization or group that receives money from Oklahoma citizens in the form of a fee.  That would include the Oklahoma Turnpike Commission, dozens of state regulatory agencies, and many shadow government agencies. 

The opposition to the expansion of the State Auditor’s scope of authority comes from a variety of camps.  One camp argues that giving the Auditor more power would make the office more powerful than any other state office.  They say that while it’s fine for the Auditor to delve into corruption if invited, he shouldn’t be routinely trying to find corruption through regularly scheduled audits.  That is asinine.  The Auditor should be able to go over the books of any agency that gets a dime of taxpayer money- invited or not.  It’s certain that an agency involved in fraud or corruption is not going to invite an outside audit.

Another camp believes that it is growing government if the Auditor’s office is given more authority.  After all if you allow the Auditor to audit more agencies, it’s going to take more personnel and more money.  That is certainly true.  It costs money to audit agencies, but I know of no taxpayer who will complain if the Auditor’s office budget is increased to insure our tax dollars are being spent in the right manner.  In fact, growing the accountability side of government is infinitely more preferable than hiring more bureaucrats in state agencies. 

A third camp believes the Auditor’s office should be appointed.  They advocate taking the vote away from the people and giving the Governor the authority to appoint the Auditor.  If there is one office that must remain accountable only to the people, it must be the Auditor.  While Oklahoma does have eleven statewide elected officials and some of the offices might be candidates for appointment, the Auditor’s office is not one of them.  The Auditor is the people’s watchdog making sure that tax dollars are being spent where they should be and rooting out fraud and corruption in government.

Every statewide elected office in Oklahoma is held by a Republican.  Both chambers of the State legislature are controlled by Republicans.  The State Auditor is a Republican, but one that has pledged to hold his fellow ‘R’s accountable to the people.  It’s time the legislature gave him the authority and the funding to insure we have transparency and accountability in state government.  Call your legislator today and ask them to expand the role of the State Auditor.