- Associated Press - Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Here are excerpts from recent editorials in Oklahoma newspapers:

Tulsa World, May 29, 2016

An inadequate budget has state continuing to sink to the bottom

The state budget deal announced at the state Capitol on Tuesday and accepted by the Legislature over the course of the week isn’t good enough.

The $6.77 billion appropriation plan might have avoided the absolutely worst scenario - a massive Medicaid rate reduction that would have imploded the state health-care system - but it solved few problems, perpetuated others and left hundreds of millions of dollars on the table unused.

The plan includes some good but difficult choices, such as ending the double deduction on state income taxes. It has some plain bad choices, such as ending the refundable nature of the earned income tax credit. It has at least one choice - a transportation bond issue that spreads costs over a long period of time, but doesn’t consult the people before going into debt - that is both good and bad. But the biggest problem is the whole deal just doesn’t go far enough.

The three most significant missing pieces from the plan are the failure to roll back ill-considered income tax rate cuts, the failure to pass a cigarette tax increase, and the refusal to claim federal funding to bring health-care coverage to 175,000 uninsured Oklahomans and set state health care on a sustainable financial path.

Gov. Mary Fallin pushed for the cigarette tax and the insurance funding - two ideas that would literally save lives - but anti-“Obamacare” partisans and the power of the tobacco lobby carried the day. Without that money, funding that should have been available for things like education and public safety went to shoring up the health care system that remains, nonetheless, inadequately funded.

While the spin doctors want to compare the spending plan to revised state budgets - those that came about after multiple state revenue failures - that’s not the real picture.

Last year’s budget for public schools was inadequate even before the state reneged on it. This year’s budget is 2.34 percent lower. Here come four-day school weeks and teacher cuts.

Last year’s budget for higher education was inadequate. This year’s budget is 15.92 percent lower. Here come big tuition hikes that will, at best, stave off lost quality.

It’s hard not to see such a massive cut to higher education as payback for University of Oklahoma President David Boren’s leadership of a voter initiative to raise the state sales tax 1 percent to support schools. Such an ugly use of political power and willingness to damage the state’s long-term prospects for vengeance is unacceptable.

There was evidence of payback elsewhere in the budget. The Oklahoma Supreme Court, which has held legislators’ feet to the fire on constitutional issues, had its budget cut 9.5 percent. Take that, your honor!

In total, the budget is 5.05 percent smaller than the spending plan the Legislature approved last year, which wasn’t enough and was never fulfilled.

Coming into the session, legislative leaders and Fallin were talking about finding a way to provide a desperately needed state-funded teacher pay raise. Despite the state’s financial challenges, such a promise could have happened, but not given the bent of the Oklahoma Legislature.

The state’s fiscal 2017 budget - even if the state makes good on its promises this year - is inadequate. It means the state’s teacher shortage will worsen, the state’s higher education system will suffer and the state will continue its short sink to the bottom.

___

The Oklahoman, May 29, 2016

Lawsuit is best way to fight administration’s bathroom edict

The Obama administration’s edict on transgender students and bathroom access has generated two responses in Oklahoma - a legislative proposal and a lawsuit. The lawsuit is the better approach.

The administration has ordered public schools to allow boys who say they identify as girls to use the girls’ bathroom and showers (or vice versa). Schools that fail to comply will lose federal funding.

We’ve criticized the edict as heavy handed, legally dubious and impractical. There simply aren’t many transgender students, and the administration’s order reduces school officials’ ability to address those rare situations in a reasonable manner. Generally, schools have previously allowed such students access to a private restroom. To suggest that these students are more socially ostracized if they used a single-occupant restroom than if they are known as the “boy who uses the girls’ bathroom” is ridiculous.

But a proposed legislative remedy, which called for granting religious exemptions to other students who don’t feel comfortable sharing a bathroom with someone of the opposite sex (regardless of how that other student self-identifies), appeared logistically impractical.

In contrast, Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt has now joined 10 other states in challenging the administration’s edict, arguing it unilaterally rewrites federal law in ways that are “wholly incompatible with Congressional text.”

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964. Title IX of the Education Amendments was passed in 1972. As the lawsuit notes, members of Congress who passed those laws clearly believed institutions should be allowed “to differentiate intimate facilities by sex.”

Senator Birch Bayh, the Indiana Democrat who introduced Title IX legislation, was asked if the law prohibited separate dorms or athletic facilities for men and women. The Congressional Record shows Bayh replied, “I do not read this as requiring integration of dormitories between the sexes, nor do I feel it mandates the (sexual) desegregation of football fields.” He added that the law did not require “that the men’s locker room be (sexually) desegregated.”

Indeed, the law specifically allows for separate facilities for men and women.

That wasn’t controversial even among liberals at the time. In a 1975 Washington Post column, Ruth Bader Ginsburg - then a law school professor and now a U.S. Supreme Court justice - wrote that “(s)eparate places to disrobe, sleep, perform personal bodily functions are permitted, in some situations required, by regard for individual privacy.”

In subsequent years, efforts to amend the aforementioned laws to specifically include sexual orientation or gender identify have been rejected, even as similar language was adopted in other federal laws. As the lawsuit notes, this affirms “Congress’s enduring understanding that ‘sex,’ as a protected class, refers only to one’s biological sex, as male or female” in Title IX.

The Obama administration ignores this reality, and also fails to apply its interpretation consistently. While its guidance letter applies to school bathrooms, the lawsuit notes it does not apply to schools’ athletic teams.

So, with justification, the lawsuit argues the administration’s directive goes “so far beyond any reasonable reading of the relevant Congressional text” that it amounts to unconstitutional seizure of the “lawmaking power reserved only to Congress.”

If an administration can unilaterally rewrite laws in defiance of constitutional limits and common sense, then it will do so on a wide range of issues, not just bathroom access. Thus, this is a fight worth having.

___

The Journal Record, May 27, 2016

Hurting the most vulnerable

A painful legislative session came to an end Friday, but Oklahomans will feel the repercussions for a long time to come.

Legislators took bows this week because, they claimed, they solved that $1.3 billion budget problem by finding some extra revenue without raising taxes, and cobbled it together without devastating common education or SoonerCare.

Among the many things they weren’t issuing press releases about was the shove off the cliff they gave to the 780,000 Oklahomans afflicted with a mental illness. The Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services asked for $30 million, money that agency desperately needs. The Legislature appropriated less than one-fourth, just $7 million. Commissioner Terri White will not only have to retain the cuts she was forced to make this year, she’ll have to cut deeper into a program that is already 46th among states in per capita spending.

It was a poignant coincidence that on Wednesday, as the House was mulling over the Senate’s mental health cuts, 27-year-old Christian Costello, son of the late labor commissioner Mark Costello, told Oklahoma County Judge Roy Elliott that he wanted to plead guilty to stabbing his father to death last year and to be sent to a prison in Minnesota where there was a doctor who treated him a decade ago. Elliott ordered a psychiatric evaluation. If Costello is eventually found culpable but incompetent, he would likely be sent to the state’s psychiatric facility in Vinita. That’s the same one psychiatrist Robert McIntyre sued the state over this month, claiming he wasn’t able to adequately treat patients. His attorney argued the state did not disclose drastic limitations under which McIntyre would be expected to work.

Gov. Fallin, who has been an advocate for increasing mental health appropriations, presented two budgets this year that would have given White’s agency less than what she needs, but three times more than the Legislature was willing to allocate.

“DHS, Health Care Authority, and OSDH also did not receive funds that were needed,” House spokeswoman Liz McNeill told Oklahoman reporter Jaclyn Cosgrove. “The Legislature has worked hard to protect key core services, but tough decisions had to be made when facing such a huge challenge.”

This Legislature hurt the most vulnerable Oklahomans by eliminating the earned income tax credit and taking a machete to mental health funding, while leaving the strongest among us unscathed.

Shame on them.

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