- Associated Press - Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Here are excerpts from recent editorials in Oklahoma newspapers:

Tulsa World, Aug. 28, 2015

State should reconsider tobacco trust fund properties

State Sen. Bryce Marlatt has proposed redirecting the state tobacco settlement trust fund to higher priority projects, most notably teacher salaries.

The Tobacco Settlement Endowment Trust has nearly $1 billion in principal. The money comes from Oklahoma’s share of a 1998 settlement of a 46-state lawsuit against the tobacco industry. Under a plan approved by voters in 2000, earnings from the trust must be used to improve the health of Oklahomans.

Creating an endowment with the tobacco settlement windfall was a wise choice. Other states spent the money quickly. In Oklahoma, the money will continue working for the people in perpetuity. We do not support spending the trust fund’s principal, but are open to a reconsideration of how to spend its earnings.

In fiscal 2014, the trust spent $38.5 million of its earnings with major expenditures for smoking prevention and cessation programs and medical research. On Wednesday, the trust held a state Capitol press event to mark a six-year $3.8 million grant to the Oklahoma State University Medical Authority to support a medical residence program to place doctors in rural and medically underserved portions of the state. Spending the earnings on anything other than health programs would require the approval of state voters.

Anti-smoking efforts are important. If they work, such programs improve not only the health of smokers, but of the people who live around them. In the long term, they save the state money that would have to go to Medicaid costs, and lead to a healthier work force.

But we can’t say those programs are the state’s top priority. Oklahoma is bleeding school teachers, and poor state support of public schools is a big reason for that problem.

Marlatt, R-Woodward, says the state ought to use the trust fund money to improve teacher salaries. With roughly 50,000 teachers and certified personnel in the state, $38.5 million would work out to about $760 apiece, which we would call a good first step.

The tobacco trust money isn’t the best way to support schools. That is the responsibility of the entire state, and it ought to be paid for with general taxation. But the Legislature seems determined to undercut the state’s tax base, leaving few alternatives.

There are absolutely more appropriate ways to fund the essentials of state government, including cancellation of an ill-advised 0.25 percent state income tax cut due to take effect Jan. 1. But if those essentials aren’t getting funded, we can’t argue with asking voters to reconsider how to use the tobacco trust earnings.


The Journal Record, Aug. 24, 2015

Remember the other victims

Sunday night, Oklahoma’s political leaders and those who follow state government were shocked by the murder of state Labor Commissioner Mark Costello.

Costello died after an altercation at a Braum’s restaurant and his adult son, who apparently has a history of mental illness, was arrested.

Monday, as state officials offered their condolences and prayers, Gov. Mary Fallin ordered flags in the state lowered to half-staff to honor Costello.

The gesture is fitting and appropriate. Those who knew Costello, regardless of party affiliation, have honored his commitment to work and family.

But we hope that when people see those flags waving in tribute, they think about more than one family.

In 2013, there were 195 murders in Oklahoma, according to the FBI.

Over the last 10 years, the number has ranged from 191 to as high as 222.

Put it another way: Every two days, one of our neighbors is killed. Often, the victims’ lives are ended by someone else in our community. In fact, a state report shows that from 2011 to 2013, more than 40 percent of the homicides were also domestic violence incidents.

These incidents of family violence - whether committed by a romantic partner, a parent against a child or a child against a parent - seem especially disheartening. To know that people suffer fear and tragedy at home cuts against the ideal of the home as a sanctuary, a place of love and trust.

Neither society nor government at any level can completely eliminate violence. They can’t end fear, terror, conflict or mental illness.

But they can work to support those who need help. Legislators can make it a priority to fund mental health services. Communities and governments can provide shelter and support to those escaping dangerous situations or trying to aid a family member’s recovery.

And every resident of Oklahoma can keep in mind that family violence is not a problem to fight only when it makes the headline, but it affects fellow Oklahomans nearly every day.


The Oklahoman, Aug. 31, 2015

Lowering the volume may help in Oklahoma teacher pay debate

The Oklahoma school year is off to a trying start, and we’re not talking solely about the many teacher positions that remain unfilled across the state. It’s the ramped-up rhetoric from education advocates and lawmakers alike that’s disconcerting.

A survey of school districts conducted by the Oklahoma State School Boards Association showed there are about 1,000 teacher vacancies - roughly 2 percent of all teaching positions - even after 600 teaching jobs were eliminated following the 2014-15 school year. This prompted OSSBA Director Shawn Hime to ask, “Are we really OK with 5- and 6-year-olds who will go without a teacher trained to develop young readers? Are we really OK with eliminating high-level science classes because we refuse to pay teachers a competitive wage?”

Refuse to pay. That’s a shot at the Legislature, which is the favorite target of education. Large rallies have been held the past two years to decry common education being “starved” by lawmakers, even though common ed always has and always will get a giant share of the state budget. This year lawmakers held common ed’s budget flat while most agencies were cut.

State schools Superintendent Joy Hofmeister has pushed for across-the-board pay raises for teachers, who haven’t had such a raise since 2008. She and others have noted that Oklahoma teachers’ average salary (about $44,500) ranks near the bottom nationally. On Thursday, the state Board of Education approved 503 requests for emergency teaching certificates in August. The state is “shortchanging our schoolchildren each day we fail to take bold action,” Hofmeister said last week.

These salvos drew strong rebuttals by some lawmakers including House Speaker Jeff Hickman, R-Fairview, who noted that the superintendent had a week earlier announced she would use $1.5 million to pay for all high school juniors to take the ACT this school year.

“Last week, paying for the ACT test for all 11th-grade students was a higher priority than our teacher shortage,” Hickman said. He said that $1.5 million, if used for teacher signing bonuses, might have put a sizable dent in the shortage.

Rep. Chad Caldwell, R-Enid, acknowledged that teachers need competitive wages, but noted a 33 percent growth in nonteaching staff from fiscal year 1993 to FY 2013. He said that “education lobbyists would have everyone believe that the Legislature is the only group responsible for being efficient with state tax dollars when we should all share in that responsibility.”

In a recent op-ed in The Oklahoman, Jennifer Monies, who heads the business-backed Oklahoma Educated Workforce Initiative, suggested considering a pay schedule that provides higher salaries to teachers in hard-to-fill jobs such as those in inner-city districts and in specialized courses in rural areas. She offered it as one possible solution. “But until we are willing to accept there may be alternative solutions,” Monies wrote, “we will continue to struggle to keep our best teachers where we need them most - in our classrooms.”

In other words, flexibility and creativity are needed in this discussion. We would add that it’s important that this be a discussion among stakeholders, instead of a shouting match. The stronger the rhetoric, the less likely something constructive can be accomplished for Oklahoma’s schoolchildren.

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