Sunday, March 13, 2011

Transparency in the old days, or, what goes around comes around.

In 1960, Oklahoma Goverment, led by newly elected Governor J. Howard Edmondson, decided to take on four major issues, Repeal of Prohibition, the state employee Merit System, Central Purchasing and County Commissioner Reform. At that time, the Governor appointed the Speaker of the House and in the case of the issues listed above, had substantial control of the Floor Leaders and those who would author major legislation.

The Oklahoma Senate, properly tagged "The Old Guard," was no fan of Edmondson nor any of his programs. Nevertheless all of the issues except County Commissioner Reform were enacted into law. That Session dragged on into the middle of July, 1960.

What was significant about those times was the true transparancey of state government - through the use of the committee system, called the Committee of the Whole" meaning a committee of all of the members of the House or Senate.

All of these major issues were considered by the Committee of the Whole. In additon, there were two large conference tables at the front of the Chambers, occupied by members of the press, who could roam freely among the members, asking questions and generally taking the pulse of the lawmakers.

Here is how it worked. When a particular bill was up for hearing that needed input from all the members, the Floor Leader would move that the House "go in" to the Commmittee of the Whole. Upon approval, and without bodily movement, the House was now in a Committee mode, with all the rules appropriate to committee meetings, while the public watched as amendments were debated, passed or killed, but the votes were not recorded. Once the leaders decided that they had a finished product, the Committee actions were approved and the Floor Leader would move that the members "go back to the House," meaning that House Rules then applied for Floor Action.

You can't get much more transparent than that.

Although Edmondson was successfull, he alienated many of the House Democrat leaders and by the next session of the Legislature, J.D. McCarty was elected Speaker and the Rules began to change. The House no longer has it its Rules, provisons for a Committee of the Whole. The Senate however, still does. They retained this in order to prevent the Lieutenant Governor, who by the Constitution is to preside over the Senate, from doing so during deliberations. So now, if the Lieutenant Governor shows up on the Senate Floor with the idea of presiding, the Floor Leader simply moves that the Senate convene as the Committee of the Whole, until the peksy number two leaves the fourth floor

Sunday, April 12, 2009

What has Reconstruction to do with education today?

Why is Oklahoma last in education and health care. All this when the Democrats were in control and we all thought they were the champions of common education? I started by doing the basics, wandering around the Capitol and asking-why? What are the core reasons for this? I got some really interesting answers and some basic political responses which I will share here, but the common thread goes back to Reconstruction. I'll zip through some of the answers and then get to meat and see if anybody agrees.

"No money." "Republicans cut taxes, no money." "Oklahoma has lowest school days in the world!" "Keating started calling teachers slugs and we didn't fight back." "We didn't fight back because we wanted to be re-elected." "If any of them could read four hundred words they would vote Democrat." "They are all for education, but they vote to cut taxes." "Oklahoman's don't care about education."

The last was the common theme and usually the second answer to the first question. Former State Senator Don Williams from Western Oklahoma put me on to the "Core Reason" Reconstruction. So here goes for what it is worth.

Yankees started beating up on the South (South Oklahoma) through the Reconstruction years and on into 1899. The Choctaws and the Chickasaws fought with the South and the Yankees never forgot it. They put the boot down and kept it there for twenty years. Settlers wanted into Oklahoma. In early 1889 Rutherford B. Hayes yielded to demands of the settlers and opened up two million acres in central Indian Territory known as the Unassigned Lands on April 22, 1889. Fifty thousand home seekers gathered at the Kansas and Texas borders for the signal. By early evening nearly every homestead and town lot in the settlement zone had been taken.

By 1906, only the land of the Five Civilized Tribes remained out of settlers hands.

In order for Oklahoma Territory and the Indian Territory to be admitted as a single state, Congress decided that Indian Territory, as a political entity with land held in common by the tribe, had to be eliminated and individual Native Americans transformed into United States citizens before Oklahoma Territory could become a state. The Federal Dawes Commission, formed in 1889, forcibly divided tribal lands into allotments given to individual Native American families. In 1896, continuing the process, the Curtis Act of 1898 helped finish it by placing residents under federal law and abolishing tribal courts. In 1906 Congress passed the Oklahoma Enabling Act which authorized a convention to meet in Guthrie, Oklahoma to write a state constitution.

During this period, 1863 to 1906, the tribes, primarily agrarian and the settlers, many outlaws and outcasts, fought it out if not physically, surely in a cultural sense. To the federal government, with its boot on the back of the tribes, and to the settlers, and their current heirs, education, common and certainly higher, simply were not issues. Families saw no reason to educate because it didn't take an education to drive mules back then. Families still control the reasons for getting an education. Settlers were more interested in grabbing land and money than sending a kid to the East or West Coast to be educated. If they did, most of the kids never came back.

IN 1920s there were a lot of economic and social disturbances effecting Oklahoma. Although North/South and East/West railroads had been built under Reconstruction,and later manufacturing and financial industries increased during the first war, Oklahoma farmers, if not sharecroppers, were unable to pay debts and went bankrupt. Workers all across Oklahoma suffered as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Daily Oklahoman fought labor unions.

Finally, in the early 1920's the Ku Klux Klan, dedicated to white supremacy that had terrorized blacks and Republicans in the South reappeared in Oklahoma. The Klan received substantial public support and politicians associated with it briefly controlled both major parties as well as the state Legislature. Consequently, blacks and Native Americans suffered another kick in the teeth, if not far worse.

All across Oklahoma there are pockets of education proponents but they are pockets. Surrounding these pockets are vast lands of drug infested poor. No family values or family pushing. Bad jobs and little hope.

If you look at the density maps of Oklahoma relating to the poor, the uneducated and the sick they are all the same. The same high numbers of poorly uneducated that pull the state average down are the same places that pull the healthy/unhealthy numbers down.

Now a lot of white folks, sons and daughters and grandsons and granddaughters of the settlers, would like to blame the tribes. Well, how far up can you go when your lands, your education and health care facilities and the decisions about them are in the hands on those who are not in your corner and don't have enough sense to realize that it is they and their fore bearers from the Reconstruction that maintain the boot on the back, the failure to fund education and health care and to take the solutions to the problems. Keep in mind the old conservative Oklahoma mantra "I got mine the hard way, they can get it that way too." "They" never had a chance and "Them" got theirs theirs the hard way of inheritance, opportunity not given to others and downright discrimination against their brothers and sisters.

Reconstruction wasn't all that long ago. Just about twice my age.

In Oklahoma, we need an Education and Health Care Mission just like the Peace Corps, to go into our own areas of poor, unhealthy and uneducated. This Mission would identify real problems, create solutions and advocate for results. We need leaders with vision and political strength. We need action. If we don't move we will be laster than the last, sicker than the sickest and dumber than your worst dreams.

We need our own Reconstruction.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Water, water every where.

Sardis Lake was created when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers constructed the dam in 1974 under a contract with the state of Oklahoma for the purpose of selling water to municpalities and industrial customers in Oklahoma. Oklahoma agreed to make 50 annual payments and pay the costs of operating the dam and the lake. However, the state was unable to sell the water it needed to recover its costs so the state discontinued payments to the federal government in 1997 (after 3 payments).The federal government sued the state for breach of contract and recovery of funds. The case wound its way through the courts and eventually Oklahoma lost the case when the Supreme court declined to hear the case.

State Treasurer Scott Meacham was quoted saying "We will have to sit down and negotiate an agreement." Ho Hum.

Well, the 15 million cost of the dam has now grown to a 71 million dollar bill and now the federal government wants its money and has threatened to with hold other federal funding until this is settled. Ho Hum.

The law of river waters is real clear. Use it, or lose it to down stream users. Oklahomans, particularly those in the Southeast think that the water is theirs for drinking and fishing. The Choctaws think that the water belongs to them. Texas wants the water. Central Oklahoma wants the water. The Legislature wants out!

How can Scott Meacham negotiate a deal, some say for around 40 million, without the legislature, which has no money? Watch out Rainy Day Fund. Who are the malfeasors here? In 1984 the state could have paid 15 million dollars and it would be over. Do you know what the current response is? "Well forty million is a bargain, it would cost 170 million to build that dam today." This is Oklahoma economic thinking at its best.

This issue seems dwarfed by the fact that Texas is going to end up with all the excess Oklahoma water before Oklahoma makes the move to hold on to it. There is however a move by a group, a loose group though, of Central Oklahoma Water Users who want to build a pipeline to Central Oklahoma from the Southeast part of the state. Better yet they want to use the proceeds from the sale of water to finance water infrastructure. Meanwhile the "Comprehensive Water Plan" for the state will be ready in 2011.

Simple questions. Where is the leadership here? Where is the money coming from?

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

If you are not trying to make things better you are a part of the problem

There are thirty five steps from the Pallazo on the South side of the Oklahoma Capitol to the entrance - which is closed. Forever, I guess there has been a sign on the Southeast corner of the Pallazo which says "Doors closed use SE entrance." Many, many folks have walked from the South parking lot and then up the thirty five steps to get the first message and then down again and in their search have found the "real" sign. This morning, I twittered about this situation and wouldn't you know it! The informative sign was in an informative position out in front of the South steps at noon. I felt so darn good!

The second thing is about service, scams and good service. Yesterday I went to the Wal Mart pharmacy to get a simple prescription that had been phoned in that morning. I was told that it would be twenty minutes so I left and went to the hotel and worked out on the weights. I returned about six or so and was told it would be twenty minutes, so I wandered to grocery and bought a rotisserie chicken for dinner. I purchased my drugs and left.

Today I needed more drugs, penicillin for a tooth abscess. This was phoned in from my dentist's office this morning. About six this afternoon I went to pick up the drugs and was told it would be about twenty minutes so I went out and bought a fish to eat and came back. I was told it would be about twenty minutes. A really nice lady behind me said "They told me the same thing." She had some new pillows so I asked her, "What did you do with your twenty minutes?" She said "I bought these pillows."

"Well now," I thought and instructed the young lady behind the counter to summon the manager. It is hard to believe but within five minutes a stocky, sweet looking lady appeared and introduced herself as Susan the manager.

I informed Susan that I thought that WM was scamming people on the twenty minute wait to induce them into twenty minutes of impulse shopping. An hour wait and most folks would leave.

All of a sudden there was great scurrying behind the counter and I was informed that my order was ready. Susan and I visited a bit, I took my order and she stationed herself near the counter. I stood by the Tylenol to observe. Five people in a row got their prescriptions just like that!

I commend Susan as a true service person. As she said "I have to do good because my retirement from WM and my Social are all I've got." I expect that she will be checking the Pharmacy from time to time now. I will be too. Susan wants to do good even if some marketing hopeful over at Springdale wants to scam folks into an extra twenty minutes of shopping. I am for Susan and darn, I felt good.

Dirt Pile: Senate Democrats are having a ball committing to spending bills like never before. You barely have to explain the bill and your dollar needs before they say "I support it." As close as the count is with the Ds and a couple of Rs who may relly see the need, some good stuff may be funded. Otherwise the R leadership has to turn down everything because of the shortfall.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Burning issues water rights and the environment

I really thought that this session of the Legislature would include a "Water War" but I was dead wrong. Not only have the bills related to the sale of water to Texas been killed but nothing has been done regarding environmental issues and pollution. There are ten agencies that have some responsibilities for or related to water. The Department of Environmental Quality. The Water Resources Board. The Department of Agriculture. The Corporation Commission. The Conservation Commission. The Department of Mines. The Department of Wildlife Conservation. The Department of Public Safety, Department of Labor and the Department of Emergency Management. All but the last three are required to develop and promulgate a Water Qulaity Standards Implementation Plan (WQSIP) for each juridictional area.

I have asked around and tried to find if there is any central gathering of these plans, any central review of these plans, any central coordination of these plans, any central review of enforcement, if any, of these plans or any ongoing report about these plans.

Most people who know and understand water, environmental issues connected to water and the agencies responsible for water quality, a handfull, will tell you that if the agencies listed carried out the responsibilities as set forth in Title 27A O.S. Sec. 1-3-101, that water quality in Oklahoma could be the best in the land. That same handfull will tell you that none of the agencies carry out those repsonsibilites to the extent that the laws expect or to the extent that they are required by the laws.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Burning Issues and Embers

Most major legislative issues will not be addressed until they become "Burning Issues" or a crisis. That is why we have so many "Embers." Here is a list of bills i would at best call "Embers." Some are just stuff. "The Religious Viewpoint, Anti-discrimination Act." "Barber Pole Prohibition." "Allowing concealed handguns on college campuses." "Clean Campaign Act." (Enacting an oxymoron)."Stealing Dimensional Stone Products." "Banks and Cemeteries Act." "Ten Commandments Act."

Compare any of these with Health Care. Indigent Care is a burning issue, cost of care is a burning issue and indigent care costs are a big part of the cost of health care since that cost is shifted by the provider to paying patients and your insurance goes up. Most times it is difficult to explain to the overage guy how this happens because he is generally unschooled in the health insurance business.

By the time of the presidential election in 1992 we all thought that health care was a burning issue but the Clinton's smothering actions, turned off supporters and the insurance industry was able to win the day. Clinton never tried again. Of course there was a Republican controlled Congress and the "Free Market" prevailed.

Eight years of George Bush allowed this issue to smolder as big insurance and the doctors made financial hay.

Maybe now, the issue is burning enough to overcome greed, stupidity and free market ideology and supplant that with a common sense approach to funding health care.

The point I want to make is this. It is far easier to introduce and pass "Embers" than it is to address "Burning Issues." Oklahoma has failed to address these issues for over ten years and that is why we are last in just about everything.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Sooner Football and IceCream

The town of Meeker served up the absolute best homemade icecream in the Capitol Rotunda that I have ever savored. I don't know why Meeker did this but I may have to start driving to Meeker for icecream.
At the same time fifteen of OU footballs best, Bradford, McCoy, Gresham, Brown, Murray, Alexaner and other starters for tommorow showed up with Coach Stoops. Bradford stands out because of his humility. McCoy, about as big as a building stands out when he stoops to low five two five year olds.
But it was the ice cream that undid them. McCoy must have smelt it first and with an engine like that, constant refuleing is necessary, because he left he House floor and went out to the Rotunda where the Meeker crowd was. He came back with his bowl and after that Stoops lost control. Only Bradford steadfastly signed anything placed in front of him. The rest went for ice cream.
What a great group of guys. They left the Capitol to go to OU Medical Center to see Correy Wilson, a sophomore wide receiver, who was critcally injured Saturday near Sulphur.
J.C. Watts was in the Capitol also. I suspect he was gauging his standing to run for Governor. J.C. has come a long, long way and been a success. His running aginst Mary Fallin will be a good race.