WANNA see legislators scramble? Mention the idea of consolidating Oklahoma school districts. There may be no greater nonstarter, nothing more politically unpopular, among the solons at the Capitol, regardless of how little sense it makes for the state to have so many (500-plus) districts.
Consolidating government offices, though, is a much easier sell. A number of bills signed into law by Gov. Mary Fallin during the most recent legislative session aim to reduce the size of government through modernization measures.
Consolidating the technology departments of Oklahoma's state agencies, an ongoing process begun in 2010, reportedly is saving an estimated $40 million per year. A bill by Rep. David Derby, R-Owasso, mandates additional compound savings each year. Those potential savings were brought to lawmakers' attention by Alex Pettit, who as the state's chief information officer is directing the IT consolidation efforts.
A bill by House Speaker T.W. Shannon, R-Lawton, focuses on a comprehensive system for documenting state-owned real property assets and liquidating unneeded assets. Bills by Reps. Jason Murphey, R-Guthrie, and Mike Turner, R-Edmond, consolidate or eliminate several of the scores of state boards and commissions. Murphey also pushed successfully for ongoing changes to central purchasing, including the vendor registration system. These changes will save money and make life easier for potential state vendors.
None of these represents sweeping changes. But they're positive steps by the party of smaller government.
A scoundrel's last refuge?
In politics, it seems every cause is about “the children.” Take the recent comments of Guy Fortney, president of the Oklahoma Association for Justice, a coalition of trial attorneys and their clients. After the Oklahoma Supreme Court struck down a lawsuit reform law on a technicality, Fortney insisted lawmakers should focus on other issues. “What would really make Oklahoma good for business is a smart and educated work force,” he told The Associated Press. “That's why education should be this Legislature's No. 1 priority.” As he professed his concern for children, Fortney didn't bother to note that his profession financially benefits from a broken system. And, more importantly, he didn't note that schools are funded with taxes generated by business activity, and that no one seriously disputes frivolous and abusive lawsuits hinder economic growth — which means the trial bar is financially undermining public education even while using it as rhetorical prop.
Greening the grade
We've noted before that legislative leaders tend to give their handiwork high marks. The governor and legislative leaders each graded the recent session no lower than an A-minus. Now they've gotten high marks from an outside group. The Sierra Club gave the session a B-plus. We doubt lawmakers welcome this endorsement. The Sierra Club praised passage of drought mitigation funding and legislation to reduce regulation of farmers' markets and local honey producers. There's nothing wrong with those bills, proving that a stuck clock can still be right twice a day. But many Oklahomans may not look at the specific legislation cited and note only the overall grade. That will worry lawmakers. Given the Sierra Club's national reputation, the average Oklahoman's takeaway from the group's B-plus session grade may be to conclude that Oklahoma lawmakers caved to the demands of environmental extremists, not that they passed good policy.
A summer of rebuilding
The May 2013 tornadoes were among the most severe in recent memory. This fact was emphasized again when state officials announced that as many as 56 school sites were damaged between May 19 and 31. Three sites were destroyed in Moore, as was the El Reno campus of the Canadian Valley Technology Center. Numerous Moore school sites were hit on both May 20 and May 31. In El Reno, seven sites were damaged with three elementary schools now temporarily closed because softball-sized hail destroyed roofs. Mid-Del Schools had 22 sites damaged. Moss Public Schools and Crutcho Public Schools experienced flooding. The tally shows just how daunting the rebuilding process will be in the weeks ahead. The only glimmer of sunshine is that the districts have the summer break to rebuild before the regular school year starts again.
Getting it right
Lawmakers get it right sometimes. An example is the “Black Friday” bill approved by the Legislature and signed by Gov. Mary Fallin during the last week of the session. A state law dating to World War II forced retailers in the state to sell products for at least 6 percent more than they paid for them. The Oklahoma attorney general's office issued an opinion in 2011 confirming that the law banned Black Friday and other low-price sales, even if they were temporary. Senate Bill 550 legalizes such sales, which is good news for Oklahoma consumers. The law takes effect Nov. 1, just in time for retailers to put it to use on this year's Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving.
A study released this week says hands-free technology for cars isn't as safe as you might expect. The report by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety said operating some devices, which do everything from turn on your favorite music to translate speech into text, required more concentration than talking on a phone or to a passenger. An automakers' group said the study could mislead consumers, “since it suggests that hand-held and hands-free devices are equally risky.” The risks associated with hand-held devices have been widely reported, which is why 41 states and the District of Columbia have banned text-messaging for all drivers. Oklahoma bans texting only for new teenage drivers, and even then only for a brief period. Regular stories about the dangers associated with texting at the wheel keep us hoping Republican leaders at the Legislature will one day ditch their confounding opposition to banning the practice for all drivers.
At a recent congressional subcommittee hearing on problems with ethanol fuel mandates, Rep. James Lankford, R-Oklahoma City, noted that his truck warranty (and many others) would be voided if he used E-15 fuel blends, which have 15 percent ethanol. Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., suggested an alternative to those worried about engine destruction from E-15: Buy a Prius. Somehow, we doubt most people will want to buy a new Prius at a cost of $27,000 to $36,000 to avoid having their current car ruined by E-15. Having the federal Environmental Protection Agency simply waive the fuel requirement, which is now a solution in search of a problem, would be a more cost-effective option — not to mention sensible. Plus, Lankford noted the Prius falls short in some areas important to consumers, such as capacity. He told Speier: “I could actually, with my Ford truck, put that Prius in the back of it.”
Discovering a way to extract oil from shale formations continues to transform the U.S. energy industry. The latest Statistical Review of World Energy, issued annually by BP PLC, showed crude oil production in the United States increased an eye-popping 14 percent last year. The 8.9 million barrels per day produced last year outpaced the previous year by 1.04 million barrels per day. That's the largest one-year jump in U.S. history — well above the previous record increase of 640,000 barrels per day in 1967. President Barack Obama is sure to look for ways to credit his energy policies for this gain in the oil patch, but the truth is hydraulic fracturing is most responsible. This process of injecting water and chemicals forces oil out of dense shale formations once thought to be impermeable. It's American ingenuity at its best, and it's paying big dividends.