A committee in the state House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly this week to make it OK to say “Merry Christmas” in public schools. Who says nothing of importance can get accomplished in this election year?
Actually, the “Merry Christmas Bill” is a feel-good measure in the extreme, which is why it passed 15-1 in committee and is sure to sail to easy passage down the road. Federal courts and the U.S. Department of Education already provide guidelines for what sorts of holiday displays may be erected in schools. Students and teachers can already offer greetings of “Merry Christmas.”
The bill’s author says the intent is to shield school districts from lawsuits over religious-based holiday displays. “It will declare that we have a right to express our core beliefs and celebrate winter traditions without fear of lawsuit, retribution or reprisal,” he said.
Lawmakers interested in really making a difference for Oklahomans, and not just showboating, should pay attention to such bills as the one approved by a Senate committee. It would move new state employees to defined contribution pension plans, instead of the defined benefit plans now in place.
Pension reform is a must if the state is to meet its obligations to retirees. But the proposed changes will be fought vigorously by vested interests. Backing the changes will require real courage by lawmakers. We’ll know by session’s end how many have it.
First Amendment under siege
Hobby Lobby’s challenge to Obamacare’s mandate requiring employers to provide contraceptive coverage, including abortifacients, continued this week with the company’s latest court filing. All citizens should care about this case’s outcome, because it could dramatically affect First Amendment rights. As Christians, Hobby Lobby’s owners feel the abortifacient mandate forces them to violate their religious faith and participate in an activity they morally oppose. Admittedly, even constitutional rights can be restrained (you can’t yell “fire” in a crowded theater), but only in support of a constitutionally defensible goal that can’t be achieved in less-intrusive ways. Can the Obama administration increase access to abortificients without forcing people of faith to participate? Of course it can. Which suggests the administration’s actions aren’t designed to promote “reproductive choice,” but are a merely an excuse to use government force to impose their views on people they disagree with.
How costly were the tornadoes of 2013 in Oklahoma? According to the Insurance Information Institute, Oklahoma led the nation in natural disaster-related insurance payouts last year with $1.99 billion. That far outpaced Texas ($1.51 billion) and Colorado ($907 million), which ranked second and third. Nationwide, payouts related to natural disasters totaled $12.79 billion, with the large majority of that — $10.27 billion — the result of tornadoes and severe thunderstorms. Speaking this week at the National Tornado Summit in Oklahoma City, institute president Robert Hartwig said that over the past 30 years, more than one-third of all natural disaster-caused claims payouts nationwide were due to tornadoes. No one around here would complain if that trended downward in 2014.
Difficult sales job
Oklahomans may recall a proposed gasoline tax increase that was placed on the ballot here in 2005. It received just 13 percent support from voters. Such taxes can be tough sells, as the governor of Washington state is learning. Gov. Jay Inslee wants to increase the gas tax. The collapse in May of a bridge on Interstate 5, which connects Washington to Canada, would seem to help his cause. But the Republican-controlled state Senate rejected the idea last summer, and no deal was reached during a special session late in 2013. Inslee is asking again. As it happens, Republican lawmakers led the way in revamping the way Oklahoma funds its Oklahoma roads and bridges. They didn’t raise taxes to do it, but instead significantly increased the state’s appropriations to transportation.
We’ve noted that state lawmakers often spend time on bills that make headlines but do little else. So here’s praise for a legislator attempting to address a complicated issue. Rep. John Enns, R-Enid, wants to protect businesses from lawsuits arising from product defects not caused by the seller. Under House Bill 2892, a seller would not be liable if he had no knowledge of the defect, could not reasonably be expected to know of the defect, and did not manufacture the defective product, in cases where the actual manufacturer could be sued instead. Enns filed the bill after a local lumberyard owner suggested he could be held liable for injuries related to a product, such as a porch swing, manufactured by someone else. The bill was held up in committee due to concerns about unintended consequences, but Enns still deserves credit for seeking reasonable change, not headlines.
Members of an Oklahoma Senate committee voted this week to authorize $160 million in bond financing for repair of the Oklahoma Capitol. Some critics have quibbled with cost estimates associated with the repair project, while others adamantly oppose bond financing for any reason, even though most people have a home mortgage or car loan. Those critics should take note of Louisiana, where officials recently sold nearly $500 million in bonds to pay for state construction projects. Officials in that state also plan to issue another $225 million in bonds to pay for a rural road improvement program. Compared to Louisiana, Oklahoma’s use of bond financing for Capitol repairs appears little more than chump change. The need for repair of the Capitol is obvious, and bond financing is the most cost-effective, fiscally conservative way to address that need. Compared to its counterparts, Oklahoma is clearly not using bond financing willy nilly.
Not much interest
We were pleased this week to see Ron Millican retain his seat as the District 7 representative to the Oklahoma City School Board. Less pleasing was the abysmal turnout for Tuesday’s race — only 305 residents of the southside district bothered to cast a ballot. Millican received 222 of those votes. His challenger, Wilfredo Santos-Rivera, had an unusual take on the turnout. Santos-Rivera said it may have indicated “that people aren’t happy with the way things are going in the schools.” Dissatisfaction with public officials usually prompts greater voter participation, not the opposite. Regardless, the patrons in District 7 are left with a good school board member, someone who in his second term will work to ease school crowding and add English Language Learner teachers.