- Associated Press - Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Here are excerpts from recent editorials in Oklahoma newspapers:

The Oklahoman, June 21, 2016

Solid Oklahoma agency is clouded by salary controversy

The controversy over the salary for its new chief executive officer has had the unfortunate effect of casting a poor light on the Tobacco Settlement Endowment Trust, which otherwise has done considerable good work in Oklahoma.

Gov. Mary Fallin is among those who have noted their disappointment over TSET paying $250,000 annually for Patrice Douglas to become CEO, a new position. The criticism isn’t aimed specifically at Douglas, who’s a former member of the Oklahoma Corporation Commission and former mayor of Edmond, but instead at the salary - especially considering the financial struggles the state is facing.

As Fallin said last week, the salary “sends the wrong message.” She noted that Douglas would be paid from “public trust funds, and the public will lose trust in this important agency if this salary takes effect.”

That would indeed be unfortunate, because TSET has a long record of sound practices that have helped make Oklahoma a healthier state.

We have written many times about the good sense Oklahoma voters showed in 2000 when they voted to create TSET. The vote came two years after Oklahoma and 45 other states reached a settlement with the tobacco industry that would bring billions of dollars into their treasuries.

There was considerable discussion among Oklahoma policymakers about how best to direct those monies. Ultimately the idea of TSET won out, and voter approval meant that the bulk of the state’s haul would go toward health-related concerns, particularly the fight against tobacco use. This is far superior to most other states, which use their money for any number of causes that have little or nothing to do with public health.

Under the constitutional amendment approved by state voters, 75 percent of the yearly check from Big Tobacco goes into TSET (the attorney general’s office receives 6.25 percent of the total each year and the Legislature 18.75 percent). Only earnings from the trust fund are spent. For fiscal year 2015, the deposit into TSET was $57.6 million, bringing the endowment balance to $999.8 million.

According to TSET, 38 percent of its funding for fiscal year 2016 is going to tobacco prevention. Twenty-six percent is targeting obesity prevention, physical activity and nutrition. Another 20 percent is going to research.

TSET’s Healthy Living Program grants, which are aimed at tobacco and obesity cessation at the community level, have been distributed to most of Oklahoma’s 77 counties. TSET helps fund research conducted at the Stephenson Cancer Center. It supports efforts ongoing at the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services, the Oklahoma Hospital Association, the Oklahoma Health Care Authority and the state Department of Health, among others. Even the Oklahoma City Boathouse Foundation has benefited from TSET’s financial support, as it seeks to increase physical activity among children and families.

From 2001 to 2014, the number of adults smoking in Oklahoma fell from 28.7 percent to 21.1 percent. Similarly, the number of smokers in middle school and high school has fallen significantly. The number of quit attempts among smokers has increased by about a third.

Simply put, TSET is a valuable asset for Oklahoma and has been since its inception. Yet the questions regarding Douglas’ salary - not just the amount, which is more than double the $120,000 that’s been paid to the agency’s executive director, but also whether the agency followed proper protocol in creating the new position - only serve to hurt its cause. TSET will need to decide soon whether this move is really worth it in the long run.


The Journal Record, June 20, 2016

The draw of Durant

Cleveland may have waited 46 years for an NBA championship, but Oklahoma City is still polishing the brass ring it captured in 2008. How soon will it tarnish?

Thunder attendance has been in the league’s top 10 since the beginning, and the team has sold out every home game for the past five years, according to ESPN data. Add in road games and the Thunder were the seventh-best-drawing team in the league this year, eighth-best last year, and third-best the season before.

What Oklahoma City doesn’t know is how much of the home attendance is attributable to being the cool new thing to do, how much because of great success with six playoff berths and seven winning records in eight seasons since the team’s arrival from Seattle, and how much of it is the extraordinary appeal of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.

A look around the league makes clear that attendance and victory go together like grits and cheese. The Minnesota Timberwolves and Philadelphia 76ers tied for worst home attendance this year, filling just 73.2 percent of their seats. The Sixers were also the worst road draw, where arenas sold 90.7 percent of capacity, making them the worst draw overall at 81.7 percent. It’s not a coincidence that Philadelphia was the league doormat, with a cringe-worthy record of 10 wins and 72 losses, the third-worst win percentage in the league’s history. The 1973 Sixers, at 9-73, were second worst.

The change of venue helped. As the Sonics, the team was filling about 90 percent of its seats. In the team’s final Seattle year, it ranked 20th in attendance and sold just 78.2 percent of available seats.

The Thunder still feels shiny and new. Durant played his rookie season in Seattle in 2007-2008, and Westbrook played his in Oklahoma City the following year. The city has no basketball history that doesn’t include the star duo. They are the team, despite some of the lovable talent that orbits stars No. 35 and No. 0.

Durant is up for grabs in 10 days, Westbrook one year from now. The Durant-Westbrook engine drives a team that is reflective of its city, where basketball and economic progress ride on parallel, successful tracks. That engine will eventually be lost, but if it happens sooner rather than later, the emotional blow to a city whose identity is now so tightly tied to its team could cause a momentum shift that reaches well beyond the court.

Stick around, Kevin. The city needs you.


Muskogee Phoenix, June 16, 2016

A perilous proposal

It might have been a Freudian slip, but the sentiment expressed by a proponent of a state question that would grant constitutional protections to agricultural practices, procedures, and technology portends peril.

An Oklahoma Farm Bureau member drumming up support for State Question 777 said the so-called Right to Farm and Ranch Amendment is needed to shield the industry from new laws and regulations. In doing so she longed for the days before some pesticides were removed from the market after they were proven hazardous to human health and the environment.

Comments like this raise concerns about SQ 777 and the motive of those peddling it. Some of its supporters describe themselves as the “original environmentalists” yet they employ technologies suspected to be less than safe.

Questions are being raised today about health and environmental risks of glyphosate, a popular herbicide used extensively in agricultural settings. The passage of SQ 777 would cripple the ability to address this growing concern and others - both known and unknown.

Proponents argue the amendment to the state’s constitution would ensure a “safe and affordable food supply.” But they resist efforts to mandate labeling for genetically modified foods and continue to pump antibiotics into animals being fed for market even though that practice threatens public health.

SQ 777 would be a boondoggle for the agriculture industry and a public risk. It would threaten the ability to protect human health, public safety and the environment.

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