- Associated Press - Tuesday, May 12, 2015

A collection of recent editorials from Oklahoma newspapers:

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The Lawton Constitution, May 6, 2015

Many entities facing money issues

The State of Oklahoma, as we have heard since the beginning of January, has a $611 million budget shortfall for the budget to be implemented July 1.

Lawton Public Schools has a similar money problem. The district has a shortfall of $5.25 million. About $2 million is a result of lower enrollment - 400 pupils - and the district anticipates salary and benefit hikes of about $1.6 million and fears about $3.6 million will be cut because of the state shortfall.

On the resources side, the district has accumulated about $4.5 million through cost savings and seeks to sell the Professional Development Center and the former Jackson Elementary School in north Lawton. That’s a smart idea. When there are fewer students, then there is less need for a school. It becomes surplus property.

Are there other buildings or land or other assets that can be closed and or sold? Superintendent Tom Deighan listed available options as a reduction in force, reductions in services and consolidation of sites and departments.

We have not heard about Lawton City Hall’s budget, but street talk is that staff cuts are being proposed and it could be most unpleasant. The ones that may impact citizens will be paraded out first. What assets can the city sell? What departments can it contract to save money?

There are two things we have not heard about that need to be investigated: a revision in employee benefits and that taxpayers are financially hurting, too, and can they afford tax and/or fee increases?

The nation went through a wrenching experience adopting ObamaCare. Some staff members of the U.S. House and Senate are part of the program, so the question is: Would it reduce state, public school, county and - where applicable city and town government - costs if employees participated in ObamaCare rather than existing state- or local-sponsored, 100 percent premium-free plans with employee and government paying a fair share?

The state director of finance should provide the numbers.

While the legislators are getting an earful of doom and gloom from all the government bureaucrats, they should take the time to seek out the truth about whether taxpayers can afford to take more from the family budget. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the 2014 Sooner State population estimate was 3.878 million people. The per capita income in 2013 was $24,208, while 16.9 percent were below the poverty line and 14.3 percent were over age 65.

While Social Security checks increased 1.7 percent last December, many are still small. One reader called the other day and said she gets $792 per month and after paying rent, food, medicine and utilities, there is not much left. A gallon of milk was less than $4 this time last year, but in some places it exceeds that this year, to say nothing of meat, cereals, coffee and everything else.

Meanwhile, local citizens in many communities approved sales tax and property tax increases for city governments and schools, and other fees have increased for water needs. We are paying more locally. State government must tighten its belt.

It’s time for legislators to call their constituents and ask how tax and fee increases will impact family budgets. Taxpayers are the only special interest group whose voice is not being heard in Oklahoma City.

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The Oklahoman, May 12, 2015

Raiding Oklahoma teacher pensions would be a bad idea

by The Oklahoman Editorial Board Published: May 12, 2015

Oklahoma lawmakers are entering the final weeks of a legislative session in which they face a $611 million shortfall but still want to spend new money on politically popular proposals. So it’s not surprising the resulting tension is generating some poorly conceived plans.

One idea that appears especially short-sighted would fund teacher pay raises by raiding teacher retirement funds. Under that proposal, lawmakers would grant teachers a $1,000 pay raise by diverting money away from teacher pensions.

Currently, about $300 million is earmarked directly to the Oklahoma Teachers Retirement System each year. Sen. James Halligan, R-Stillwater, and others want to divert $30 million of that total and then find another $30 million elsewhere to cover a pay raise.

Basically, lawmakers would rob Peter to pay Paul. Worse yet, Halligan’s plan would resume past practices that made Oklahoma’s teachers’ retirement system one of the worst-funded in the nation. For years, lawmakers diverted money from the system, leaving it ever-less financially stable.

By 2010, the teachers’ system had $10.4 billion in unfunded liabilities. Reform efforts enacted since 2010 have cut that figure to $7.2 billion (as of June 30, 2014, the most recent figures available). The system has gone from an abysmal 48 percent funded status to an only slightly less dire 63 percent funded status. Enormous progress has been made, but the job is far from complete.

As recently as 2010, the OTRS was projected to never reach fully funded status. Now, thanks to legislative reforms, it could be fully funded within 11 years. But that won’t happen if lawmakers start raiding the fund as they did in the past.

Fortunately, others are cautioning against raiding the teachers retirement system, including Rep. Randy McDaniel, R-Edmond, who is the leading pension expert in the state House; state Treasurer Ken Miller, who chairs the Oklahoma State Pension Commission; Sen. Ron Sharp, a Shawnee Republican who is a retired educator; and Rep. Scott Inman, the Del City lawmaker who leads the House Democratic caucus.

McDaniel notes that retired teachers have gone without any benefit improvements for seven years. To divert money from the system now will effectively tell those retired educators that those sacrifices have been made in vain.

McDaniel notes the system only recently achieved a positive cash flow. Previously, there was a funding gap of up to $500 million across all state pension systems, with the teachers fund representing about half that amount.

Raiding the teachers retirement system will have long-term consequences that could lead to drastic measures in future years, such as this year’s decision by Kansas lawmakers to sell $1 billion in taxable pension bonds to shore up a state employee retirement system.

Like McDaniel, Sharp notes that diversion of retirement funds will make it harder to give retirees cost-of-living adjustments. Miller says the retirement system is “not currently actuarially sound.” And Inman adds that “while our caucus firmly believes in a teacher pay raise, to steal money from our retired educators for our current educators is wrong.”

The fact that the House Democratic caucus appears more willing to buck teachers unions than some Republicans highlights the extent of this plan’s serious flaws.

Oklahoma has made huge strides addressing its pension woes since 2010. Rather than backsliding in the name of political expediency, lawmakers need to keep forging ahead.

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Muskogee Phoenix, May 12, 2015

Storm forecasters need new way to reach public

Storm forecasters are on the right track by assessing how they tell people of tornado threats.

The forecasters were concerned about the high number of casualties when tornadoes caused the deaths of 558 people in 2011.

That was the second highest total of tornado deaths on record, according to an Associated Press story.

Forecasters with the National Weather Service are looking at their procedures for alerting the public.

They are discussing using social sciences to learn how get the appropriate response from the public.

They also seek to use “nerd-speak” less.

It makes sense.

Much of the populace has access to the Internet on their smartphones. They have access to multiple apps that show storm forecasts.

The problem is that not everyone heeds those warnings.

Forecasters are hoping to find ways to better attract the public’s attention and get the desired result - take cover.

Forecasters also could speak a more common language - one that the public is more likely to understand.

Some people complain when television pre-empts shows with wall-to-wall coverage of potential storms -almost to the point where they tune out the information.

There is nothing that the forecasters can do to help the public if the public does not help itself.

Pay attention to the warnings.

Follow instructions.

Live another day.

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