JUSTIN Jones has a mess on his hands.
As director of the Oklahoma Department of Corrections, Jones oversees the agency charged with watching an ever-growing prison population, and doing so with too-few prison guards. That dynamic contributes to brawls such as the one this week involving about 30 inmates at the Mack Alford Correctional Center in Stringtown.
It was the latest of many violent incidents behind bars in the past year. Prison guards are concerned for their safety, the head of the Oklahoma Corrections Professions says, and prisons are “losing people like crazy everywhere” because of low pay and job conditions.
Additional funding would help, and Jones has regularly asked the Legislature for more. But bookkeeping concerns have become a big problem. The Oklahoman recently obtained documents showing that the amount of money held in two DOC revolving accounts was significantly greater than what the agency reported to the governor for her budgeting purposes.
Preston Doerflinger, the governor's chief budget writer, says DOC has clear needs “but the problem is when you've got monies sitting in revolving accounts that appear to not be accurate and that they're not utilizing appropriately, then how best are we to know and what confidence are we to have in taking into consideration the need for additional resources?”
Good questions. Until they're answered sufficiently, Jones' already tough job will only get more difficult.
Earlier this year when Rep. Mike Shelton, D-Oklahoma City, filed an amendment to provide vouchers to families of children attending any school that allows teachers to be armed, we thought it was a political stunt. We stand corrected. Shelton remains steadfast, making the case for school choice in situations where parents are uncomfortable with the idea of a child's teacher having a gun. Shelton argues, “It is my job, not a teacher's, to introduce guns to my children. Parents should be empowered to take their children out of any school that allows guns in the classroom.” Fair enough. But school-choice supporters reasonably argue: Why stop there? Should parents be forced to keep their children in a failing school, based solely on geographic proximity, so long as teachers don't have weapons? Shelton's argument is not unreasonable, but it can apply to situations well beyond the “guns in school” issue.
So much for those concerns
Oklahoma tag agents howled in 2010 when the state Tax Commission began making some tag agent services available online. The commission was complying with legislation directing all state agencies to offer online services. At the time, a lobbyist for the Oklahoma Tag Agent Coalition complained about the Tax Commission “spending money to put the state in competition with private enterprise.” (Horrors!) Turns out the concerns were for naught. The Tulsa World reports that three years later, the number of online license tag renewals has grown but business conducted over the Internet comprises less than 1 percent of total tag agent-related revenue. In 2012, tag agents collected $817 million in taxes and fees. Online transactions amounted to just $427,287. For now at least, it's clear folks much prefer to conduct these transactions in person.
Since her election, Gov. Mary Fallin has touted efforts to right-size government. In particular, she has repeatedly argued Oklahoma has too many agencies, boards and commissions. This week, she showed those words were more than campaign rhetoric by vetoing a bill that had received almost unanimous support in the Oklahoma Legislature. House Joint Resolution 1023 would have recreated the Oklahoma Juvenile Justice Reform Committee to review Oklahoma's juvenile justice system. The measure passed the House 92-3 and cleared the Senate 43-0. But Fallin noted the committee could be formed through an executive order “rather than passing legislation and adding statutory provisions to our already lengthy legal code.” That's a good point. Others have previously noted numerous boards remain part of state law even though those groups have not met in years. As Fallin notes, such semi-permanent legal changes aren't necessary to achieve short-term goals.
Making them sweat
ESPN executives welcomed opinions this week about pro basketball player Jason Collins' disclosure that he is gay — some opinions, at least. ESPN reporter Chris Broussard had the PC police working overtime after he called Collins a sinner during the program “Outside the Lines.” NBA players who engage in premarital sex or adultery were “walking in open rebellion to God, and to Jesus Christ,” Broussard said. An ESPN suit followed up by saying the network regretted that a discussion of personal viewpoints had become a “distraction.” Ever notice how often Christian viewpoints tend to have that effect? Bashing Christianity is just fine, of course, but defending it? Can't have that. ESPN added that the network was “fully committed to diversity and welcomes Jason Collins' announcement.” Thanks for clearing that up.
When Oklahoma lifted its ban on horse slaughter this year, opponents insisted the legislation was designed to benefit individuals wanting to open a horse-slaughter plant locally. Instead, the nation's first horse slaughter plant will open, as predicted when the slaughter bill was approved, in New Mexico. U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has confirmed a plant in that state will open unless Congress reinstates a ban on horse slaughter. This development will likely reduce any drive for a horse plant in Oklahoma. Interested investors will want to monitor the New Mexico plant's experience first. Will protesters impede functional operation of the plant? Will frivolous lawsuits bombard the plant's owners? And how much market demand will there actually be for horse slaughter (although it's clear plants in Mexico and Canada are staying busy)? Having the chance to let someone else go first in this arena is not a bad thing for Oklahoma.
Every little bit
A bill cutting Oklahoma's income tax from 5.25 percent to 5 percent in 2015 has been derided by Democrats as “only” providing $88 annually to the average taxpayer. Further minimizing it, Rep. Mike Brown, D-Tahlequah, estimated the average savings was just 22 cents per day, not enough for a pack of gum. Compare the Democrats' attitude to that of Heather Wheeler, a stay-at-home mom. Wheeler noted the extra money might pay for new clothes for her kids or dinner with her husband. “It might not seem like a lot, but every little bit helps,” Wheeler said. It's ironic that Democrats, the self-proclaimed party of the poor, seem out-of-touch with the realities of those living on limited incomes. Maybe 88 bucks isn't a lifestyle changer, but we bet a lot of Oklahomans will agree with Wheeler rather than critics who act as though families' money grows on trees.