At the Capitol: OEA, Teamsters, other unions rally and lobby today
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Published: 15-Mar-2011
By Patrick B. McGuigan

Published 15-Mar-2011
 
A crowd that filled two-thirds of the plaza south of the Oklahoma state Capitol rallied this morning (Tuesday, March 15) to oppose education budget cuts, proposed changes in collective bargaining strictures and other measures pending in the Legislature.
 
The gathering at the Capitol was sponsored by the Oklahoma Education Association (OEA), the Teamsters and other labor unions.
 
Signs at the rally featured these slogans: “Work for a Living? Rally!!”, “Play Hard or Go Home,” “Stop the War on Workers,” “If you think education is expensive, try ignorance,” and “Collective Bargaining: Backbone of the Middle Class.”
 
Another popular slogan for the day was “You’ve Had your Say, Now We Say No Way.”
 
Many in the crowd wore stickers touting an alliance of Republicans, educators and Democrats in support of public education.
 
A variety of speakers fired up the crowd, encouraging them to oppose education budget cuts, any changes in collective bargaining strictures and other proposals that have emerged this legislative session, the third in a row in which state government revenues are hundreds of millions of dollars short of anticipated spending.
 
Kyle Dahlem, a longtime OEA leader, evoked memories of the 1990 debate over House Bill 1017. That measure mandated significant reductions in the state’s mandated student-teacher ratio, with the practical effect of increasing the number of public school teachers. In her speech, Dahlem told the crowd those four days in 1990 were significant in development of public schools in Oklahoma.
 
However, she asserted, “This is not 1990 This is 2011, and we will not be silent.”
 
Linda Hampton, an OEA vice president, also said the union members were focused on retirement benefits. The OEA was the leading sponsor of State Question 744, a controversial ballot initiative that would have mandated millions of dollars in state government spending be shifted from other functions and into public education. The proposal gained less than 19% support in the November 2010 election.
 
Public education budget cuts at the state level have been held to 3% or less in recent years, while other agencies have faced double-digit cuts. In Governor Mary Fallin’s proposed executive budget, education was held to roughly 3% reductions, compared to 5% cuts for most state agencies.
 
In some analyses, Oklahoma will be the first state to face inadequate cash flow to service retirement benefits, as early as 2017. The average for Oklahoma’s pensions is 61% adequacy of funding. The recommended industry standard is 80%. The Oklahoma Teacher Retirement System has the lowest funding ratio, at about 50% (higher in some analyses, lower in others).
 
While a variety of proposals were processed through committee early in the session, last week sponsors of the reforms withdrew most of the measures from the House. The one remaining House measure, the Truth-in-Funding Act from state Rep. Randy McDaniel, would limit cost-of-living adjustments (COLAs) and could improve the state’s retirement funding ratio by $5 billion of the projected $16 billion funding gap.
 
House Bill 1593 would repeal the Oklahoma Municipal Employee Collective Bargaining Act (OMECBA) passed and signed into law in 2004. That measure would remove from the state’s 13 largest cities a mandate to engage in collective bargaining with members of non-uniformed public employee unions and associations.
 
A source of irritation to many attending Tuesday’s rally are proposals to limit or change systems for firing teachers, including limits on “trial de novo” (accessing district courts after dismissal).
 
Not as readily apparent at the rally were operational tensions between new Superintendent of Public Instruction Janet Barresi and the Board of Education.
 
The state Board of Education has prevented Barresi from hiring key aides. Republicans have advanced a variety of proposals to limit the board’s power and enhance the superintendent’s. Those measures are still under consideration in both Houses.
 
Across the spectrum of issues, a band of conservative Republicans House members have been working with Democrats to withhold emergency clauses from legislation that has gained comfortable majorities, including education reforms. The practical effect of not having the emergency provision is to delay by several months implementation of laws.

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