Friday, May 29, 2020

Are House Republican leaders dishonest or ignorant?


[Guest post by Jonathan Small]

If this year is like most election years, Oklahomans will receive campaign mailers from state Republicans decrying Washington, D.C.-style politics and proclaiming themselves fiscal conservatives. But in this year’s session—primarily because of House Republican leaders—lawmakers fully embraced D.C. politics and abandoned responsible financial stewardship.

Few things highlight this sad reality more than House Republicans’ decision to increase Oklahoma’s unfunded liability by advancing an unfunded “cost of living adjustment” (COLA) for retired state government workers—a transparent election-year ploy to buy votes with other people’s money.

The negative consequences for working families will be significant.

When Democrats controlled the Legislature, they also advanced unfunded COLAs in election years. That ultimately drained pensions so fast Oklahoma ranked 47th among the 50 states by 2007.

Between 2000 and 2010 the unfunded liability of Oklahoma’s state pensions increased from $6 billion to $16 billion. Things got so bad that by 2010 actuaries predicted the teachers’ retirement plan would never achieve fully funded status.

However, when the GOP won power, that first generation of Republican legislative leaders—who not only touted conservatism on the campaign trail but practiced it in office—began reforming pensions. One major reform, abandoned this year by House Republican “leaders,” was to ban the raiding of pension assets through unfunded COLAs.

Major progress has since been achieved, but—contrary to the fiscal fairy tales offered by some lawmakers—state pensions are still far from whole. Oklahoma’s government pensions started the year with $7.8 billion in unfunded liabilities. That figure is larger now thanks to the unfunded COLA.

The teachers’ retirement system, in particular, faces major challenges. The teachers’ system already had more money going out in benefit payments than what was coming in through employee and employer contributions. The system must make up the difference with investment earnings. Now, those earnings are reeling due to the stock-market collapse tied to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Teachers’ Retirement System of Oklahoma portfolio has declined by $1 billion since June 30, 2019, and its funded status has fallen from 72.3 percent to around 64 percent.

The unfunded COLA further drained system assets, adding an estimated $400 million in unfunded liability to the teachers’ system.

I am a CPA who previously served on the board of the Oklahoma Teachers Retirement System, so I understand what those numbers represent: reduced benefits for current teachers upon their retirement, diversion of funds from schools and other needs to retirement systems in the future, and tax increases for working families to cover unfunded liabilities (or some combination of all three).

When incumbent Republicans dismiss the hard financial realities created by their raid of pension assets—done amidst a global pandemic when the livelihoods of working Oklahoma families are being decimated—citizens must ask if those lawmakers are willfully ignorant of financial reality or deliberately misleading constituents. Those are the only two possible answers, and neither inspires voter confidence.

Thursday, May 28, 2020

Never let a crisis go to waste

A Tulsa nonprofit organization is working “to make sex education as accessible as possible for youth and families in our community to engage with during the COVID-19 pandemic.” One featured item is a coloring book with the typical pronoun propaganda (not to mention words that are inappropriate for children who are young enough to like coloring books). The organization coordinates programs for Tulsa Public Schools, Tulsa Union, and other districts.

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

School-choice foe arrested for lewd proposals to a minor

"One of the chief ringleaders of the 2018 teacher walkouts in Oklahoma has been arrested for lewd proposals to a minor," Ray Carter reports.
Twenty-seven-year old Alberto Morejon, an 8th grade U.S. history teacher at Stillwater Junior High, was arrested following a complaint from a concerned parent and a subsequent investigation, a Stillwater Police Department release revealed. ...
In running the “Oklahoma Teachers-The Time is Now” Facebook group, Morejon drew national prominence for his role in launching the 2018 teacher walkouts and was a featured spokesman for the event, standing alongside officials with the Oklahoma Education Association during at least one press event.

The walkout occurred after lawmakers approved nearly $600 million in tax increases and provided the largest teacher pay raise in state history. Walkout leaders said it wasn’t enough.

In 2019, Morejon called for ousting as many as 35 Republican lawmakers, despite the fact most of those lawmakers supported teacher pay raises and school-funding increases.

Morejon has also been a prominent opponent of school-choice policies that allow children options other than their local public school, including a tax-credit scholarship program whose beneficiaries are mostly low-income children.

Legislation filed in 2019 that carried over to the 2020 legislative session—Senate Bill 407—would have increased the size of the tax-credit scholarship program while also providing millions in private funding to public schools.

Morejon was a vocal opponent of the proposal, tweeting on May 16, “For the 2nd straight year, SB 407 is dead!”

Children aided by the tax-credit scholarship program include children who have been victims of child sexual abuse or were previously living in an environment where sexual trafficking occurred.

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Why indeed?

The academic and social benefits of homeschooling

"Homeschooling works," Brian D. Ray and Carlos Valiente write. "The roughly 2 million children who currently learn at home join a millennia-old practice supported by many government officials, scholars, college officials, and employers."

Saturday, May 9, 2020

How big a Department of Education does Oklahoma need?

"From curriculum to nutrition to family engagement to technology," Greg Forster writes, "the Oklahoma State Department of Education’s interference in your local school never rests. And when the state isn’t overregulating schools, it’s promoting the indoctrination of students into a progressive political agenda."

Friday, May 8, 2020

Friday, May 1, 2020

COVID chaos requires bold reforms

[Guest post by Jonathan Small]

The assault on lives, livelihoods, and medical needs of Oklahomans by governments’ response to COVID-19 is going to require bold reforms to reverse the damage. Lawmakers should enact several polices as a result.

First, any regulations waived to deal with COVID-19 should stay repealed. The state is functioning without those regulations and lives and livelihoods have been saved.

Oklahoma government is receiving more than $1 billion in federal funding to recover. As the federal government provides more flexibility, these funds should be used for a mix of purposes, including offsetting of state revenue shortfalls, financing of some strategic projects, and facilitating pro-growth reforms.

Pro-growth tax reform is desperately needed. With two “black swan” events underway—the collapse of the oil and gas industry and COVID-19—Oklahoma must now position itself to diversify with new businesses, preserve existing businesses, and attract business from other states.

It’s time to eliminate the wildly volatile corporate income tax, adopt a revenue-neutral plan to phase-out the personal income tax, and adjust the tax code to protect the most vulnerable from tax increases. That will provide a more stable revenue system for state government and foster job creation and economic diversification.

Lawmakers should use part of federal aid to reform the teacher’s retirement system. Strengthening state finances and pensions and giving teachers an asset that travels with them (that can benefit them and their families) can be accomplished by enrolling all new teachers in a robust defined-contribution plan, duplicating the similar successful reform done for other new state employees. This will also help with recruitment since today’s employees are extremely mobile and change jobs throughout their lives.

Policymakers should provide permanent and full expensing for new investments in machinery and equipment, allow faster depreciation deductions, and foster crowdfunding infrastructure to provide more capital to small businesses. Businesses are going to need maximum flexibility to rebuild.

Legislators should delay collection of business property taxes until at least Oct. 1, 2020 and remove the experience rating on unemployment-insurance tax rates related to COVID-19.

In health care, lawmakers need to protect patients from surprise medical bills by requiring advance notice of costs. They need to protect doctors by placing caps on noneconomic damages in the Oklahoma Constitution. And they need to protect the truly needy already on Medicaid and taxpayers by rejecting any sort of Medicaid expansion. The state already faces a $1.3 billion shortfall.

To build the workforce of tomorrow, lawmakers should support tax-credit scholarship programs that increase K-12 educational opportunity and scrutinize tuition rates so colleges focus on productive teaching.

The government response to COVID-19 has done severe damage to Oklahoma citizens’ lives. But lawmakers have the chance to change that trajectory and put Oklahoma back on the path of vitality—if they embrace needed reforms.

Monday, April 27, 2020

Calls to change absentee voting process raise fraud concerns

"In response to COVID-19, a coalition of mostly left-leaning organizations is demanding that Oklahoma abandon a longstanding election-security safeguard," Ray Carter reports.

Sunday, April 26, 2020

Literature review shows positive academic outcomes for homeschoolers

Dr. Lindsey Burke of the Heritage Foundation has authored a literature review entitled "Bringing Achievement Home 2019: A Review of the Academic Outcomes of Homeschooling Students in the United States."
Although methodological limitations prevent scholars from drawing a causal connection between homeschooling and the largely positive outcomes identified in the literature, the research on the outcomes of those who homeschool, whether the result of homeschooling itself or other unobservable characteristics of families who homeschool such as greater parental involvement, shows positive academic outcomes for participants.
Read the whole thing here.

The case against homeschool regulation

Kerry McDonald makes it here.