Brown Boys Dump Plan B on Oklahoma

Heavener Runestone City Park, ID’d by Josh McBee.

I don’t normally have scatological thoughts when writing blog posts, but I have been drafting one titled “Who Will Empty Your Bedpan?” reacting to silliness posted on The 1889 Institute’s website.  Then I woke up this morning to the news that the failure of Plan A yesterday in the legislature’s special session leaves us with Plan B—namely another round of cuts to state agency budgets and the real possibility of elderly Oklahomans being denied Medicaid services like nursing home care. 

As I will elaborate upon in that future post, “Who will empty your bedpan?” was a rhetorical question I used in my economics classes when trying to emphasize the importance of thinking about “real” economic output more than just looking at the nominal or dollar totals and to demonstrate why education is a necessary government service.  I called it my “Bedpan Theory” which essentially states that you can have a bunch of money at the end of your life, but you’re going to be pretty miserable if those emptying your bedpan are untrained, uneducated and resentful of their poor circumstances in life.  Translated, though I doubt the Limited Thinkers at Oklahoma’s Stink Tanks will ever understand, we all benefit from living in a community where our fellow residents are educated and prosperous so we all, not just parents, should invest generously in the education of our community’s children. 

We have the Brown Boys, Dan and David, (along with many others including the Daily Oklahoman) to thank for this Plan B dump on our state.  I have written before about House Bill 1017, Oklahoma’s landmark education reform legislation and the lasting legacy of Governor Henry Bellmon a man of vision and courage, in Once Upon A Time and House Bill 1017 25th Anniversary .  As I pointed out in an Epilogue to the latter, after an attempt to repeal the legislation through State Question 639 failed in 1991, its backers filed State Question 640 which passed in 1992 and put in place the requirement that it takes a super majority of three-fourths for the legislature to increase taxes.  A vocal leader of the efforts to pass both state questions was Dan Brown, then head of the Oklahoma Taxpayers Union.  The following year David Brown, who served until just last year as chairman of its board, is credited with leading the effort to establish the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs that has dutifully kept the anti-tax, anti-government, anti-common sense rhetoric front and center in our state ever since.      

House Bill 1017, and the general economic prosperity in our nation until the Great Recession of 2008, fostered improvements in Oklahoma public education including statewide expansion of early childhood education for four year olds.  But that progress was fully constipated when the “tax cuts increase revenues” silliness advocated by David Brown’s stink tank bore its own brown fruit leaving our state government with an obvious structural deficit into the foreseeable future.  Now, even though a clear majority of our legislators have come to understand that it takes real and current (not imaginary “supply side”) revenue to provide essential government services, Dan Brown’s super majority sphincter prevents the passage of any new revenue measures.

I don’t know if the Brown Boys are related by blood, but they are certainly related in their legacy of dumping barriers to progress on Oklahomans.  In the near future when you see a bedpan that needs emptying just think Brown; that won’t get it emptied but it will help you remember why it isn’t.

As always lunch is on me for the first to ID the photo location.

Piling On

Inside Full Circle Bookstore, OKC.  ID’d by Steve Hunt

When I read the October 5, Tulsa World, Readers Forum piece by Curtis Shelton and David Autry of the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, “State Budget Crisis?  What Budget Crisis?”, I was so disappointed that my hometown newspaper which had recently touted its new fact-checking mission would give space to the OCPA that I resolved I would not leave it unchallenged.  So I penned a letter to the editor, too long by a couple of hundred words, and emailed it in with much satisfaction because I not only pointed out shortcomings of Shelton and Autry’s drivel, but I also chided the World for printing it.   Back came a response that the editor liked my letter, but it was too long by about the number of words I wrote criticizing the World—go figure.

Actually the suggestion was not to drop my critique of the World, but to submit it separately from my letter responding to the OCPA’s piece; I did as suggested, and my eloquent epistle appeared Sunday, October 15.  But before I could bask in the glory of my erudite argument and dazzling data, another letter to the editor appeared October 12, penned by T. E. Connor and titled “More pie in the sky from political hacks”.  Mr. Connor chides them for claiming our state’s impending $500 million budget hole can be plugged by simply zeroing out the “pet projects” of “special interests” without providing any specifics.

I think Mr. Connor is spot on with his criticism.  You see the OCPA has been offering a series of “Cost Avoidance” recommendations throughout the special session and #8, by the OCPA’s Trent England, is “Make Low Priority Agencies Non-Appropriated”.  He lists three, probably after checking the list with his Board of Directors.  They are the J. M. Davis Gun Museum in Claremore, $288,000 appropriated, the Oklahoma Spaceport authority, I think $321,000 appropriated, and the Oklahoma Educational Television Authority, $3,608,000 (my numbers are best I can discern from the 2016 state financial report and budget).  In other words, Mr. England’s big idea to get to $500 million is saving $600,000 and killing off Big Bird in Oklahoma.

Three days later I got to bask in the glory of my letter which demonstrated, as I have many times in this Blog (see Same Song, Umpteenth Verse for a recent example) that the OCPA aggregates school revenues by double counting some and including fund balances as a way that grossly exaggerates the funding truly available to budget.  They also base their recommendations for funding teacher pay raises on the belief (or lie if they know better) that all school revenues can be used for any purpose.  I argued that if they so distort facts with respect to funding our schools, then they likely are employing similar misinformation about the state budget as a whole.  I loved it.

Then a mere three days after that, being today, the World’s new partnership with Politifact bore fruit with an almost full page fact-check of the Shelton/Autry/OCPA allegation that “state government spending is at an all-time high. The state is on track to spend more in this fiscal year — more than $17.9 billion — than at any time in state history.”  Jon Greenberg of Politifact explained how it is deceptive to talk about state spending levels over time without considering the impacts of increasing population and inflation, as most who work with such data would readily do.  He then concluded that the OCPA allegation is “Mostly False”. 

The fellows at the OCPA had scored a little win by getting the World to devote a quarter page to their drivel on October 5, something they could add to their monthly board productivity report, but then got slammed with a full page, in color, “Mostly False”.  Kind of makes this World subscriber proud and willing to keep paying for the print edition.  Actually the fellows got let off pretty easy by Politifact.  What is worse, in my opinion, than not considering inflation or population growth, is not discerning among the various components of the state budget that are not fungible, i.e. money that comes from the federal government for Medicaid program reimbursement cannot be used to hire more corrections workers.  As I have repeatedly explained before (see The Education of Little Thinker ) when the OCPA fellows have whined about all the money going to public schools in Oklahoma, the fact that more kids are eating and buying school meals at higher prices, that student activities like athletics and choirs are collecting more gate receipts and cookies sales, and that local communities are voting bonds to build and renovate their children’s school facilities, does not mean those increasing revenues can be used for teacher pay raises.

Here’s how Governor Fallin’s FY 2016 budget book states it:  “As a result, revenues available for discretionary spending are declining in years when total revenues are growing.  In these scenarios, many government functions receive fewer appropriated, or discretionary, dollars through the General Revenue Fund while other functions receive more apportioned, or mandatory, dollars.”   For many reasons, some within the Legislature’s control but many not, all state revenues are not fungible or available to be spent on any state function.  The OCPA’s passion for simply showing total revenues or total expenditures is of no help to those legislators who are trying to balance the state’s budget.  Our state’s challenges are more nuanced than that and you would think a think tank could think clearly about it.  Either clear thinking about policy is not their real mission or they simply are not capable.  Their statement is not only “mostly false” it is also mostly deceptive and/or irrelevant.

As always lunch is on me to the first to ID the photo location.

A Tribute to Vo and Katy

Statue of Luther in the Wittenberg Market plaza in front of the town hall just off Collegienstrasse about halfway from the Castle/All Saints Church of 95 Theses fame to the Lutherhaus where they lived; ID’d by my nephew Vince Taylor.

I’m taking a little break from critiquing the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs this time though I do have a brief comment about a recent post Teacher Hiring Devastated by Emergency “Common Sense Shortage” on their site by documented (see In A Flash , Crybabies and Where to Begin? ) Limited Thinker Greg Forster.  He questions whether teacher certification requirements are really beneficial and believes that eliminating them would end Oklahoma’s teacher shortage.  I commented on my experience as a beginning classroom teacher without the benefit of any focused preparation in my post (Charlie’s Wake ) Charlie’s Wake so have some first-hand experience with what he proposes.  I’ll only say I appreciate that Mr. Forster has stopped referring to Oklahoma’s teachers and administrators as “the Blob” by toning it down to “education establishment” and “old guard”.

Tomorrow is my mother’s birthday and she would be 92 if still with us.  Her given name was Veaujilla and her siblings were Xerlan, Gretzlyn, Arlon, Durian and Thamon; my grandfather Leslie Hazen was an interesting man.  My mother went by Vo.  Where we lived in the early 60’s the wives in each house next door and across the street were named Flo, Jo and Zo.  The neighborhood joke was that the husbands just had to yell “O” and some wife would answer.

I’ve written previously about my mother and father in They Made It Look Easy .  She was an amazing woman of intelligence, compassion and strength.  Anyone she interacted with was immediately drawn to her warm, caring personality.  After my brother and I left home she entered nursing school and had a successful career as an RN in Tulsa till her retirement to care for her father and step-mother.  Had she been born in 1955 instead of 1925 she would have been an amazing physician.

Any Watts family members still reading at this point are wondering if the second half of my tribute is to either of two women named Katy who are married to my nephews, one in Texas and the other in Florida.  Both, like my mother, are women of intelligence, compassion and strength and certainly worthy of tribute (Watts men always marry our betters), but I’m writing about neither.  The Katy who has been on my mind in recent weeks is Katharina Von Bora who was the wife of Martin Luther.

My mother’s mother died when my mother was five years old.  I had always understood that this grandmother I never knew was the daughter of two German immigrants and thought it would be interesting to learn where they immigrated from and visit those parts of Germany.  We had made a similar trip to England concerning Linda’s English grandmother and it was an interesting and fun experience.

My efforts in genealogy ran into a dead end when I learned that, while my grandmother’s mother was born in Germany and immigrated as a child, her father was the son of an English father and Irish mother; also I couldn’t find any specific immigration records.   Undaunted we decided we would still go to Germany but instead of chasing my roots, this October 31 being the 500th anniversary of the publication of his 95 Theses, we’d go see Martin Luther sites instead.

Here is Katharina Von Bora’s statue in Wittenberg where she and Martin Luther lived.

She was born in 1499 to noble but impoverished parents who sent her away to a nunnery at age 5.  At age 9 she moved to the Cistercian monastery in Nimbschen, near Grimma, south of Leipzig where she eventually became a nun.  Here are the ruins of her monastery that we visited.  They are near a lovely hotel and restaurant, old and new buildings, in a fairly rural and quiet area.

In 1523, having learned about the reformation activities sparked by Martin Luther in Wittenberg in 1517, she and eight other nuns escaped their Catholic dominated region in the wagon of a fish monger and settled in Wittenberg.  Her companions ranged in age from their teens to fifty something and one by one Martin Luther and other Wittenberg leaders found suitable arrangements/marriages for their well-being.  Eventually Katharine was the last without a permanent situation, having rejected more than one proposal.

She told a friend of Luther’s that she would marry Luther.  Having struggled with what impact his marriage might have on the reformation movement, Luther decided that marrying Katharine Von Bora would “…please his father, rile the pope, cause the angels to laugh, and the devils to weep.”  So they married in 1525.  Over the next ten years she bore six children, four who survived childhood.  She and Martin lived in their Wittenberg house that was previously an Augustinian dormitory which she ran and managed as a rooming house for both paying and non-paying students, friends and family.  She brewed and sold beer (the water was not safe to drink), maintained vegetable gardens and livestock outside the town and eventually managed a farm in another area.

Of course Martin Luther was teaching, writing, traveling and generally being famous all the years of their marriage until his death in 1546.  She lived seven more years to age 53, seeing their four children into adulthood.  She was literate but left few writings; what is known about her life in Wittenberg is largely through the extensive writings left by Luther and others, especially the men who attended his nightly “table talks” over dinner at the Luther house.  They were devoted to each other and Luther defied both law and tradition when he named her guardian of their children and beneficiary of his estate in his last will and testament, though after his death the court still required a man be appointed to help her.

As always lunch is on me for the first to ID the photo location.

The Education of Little Thinker

In my last post Same Song, Umpteenth Verse  I took Dave Bond and Curtis Shelton of the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs to task for their ill-informed and misleading September 19 post “Oklahoma Public School Revenues Are Higher Than Ever”.  Here is the graph they used

I tied in to their numbers and showed how they were double counting and using non-recurring funds to fabricate a tale of growing education revenue in our state.  There was more I could have said, as I have in many past posts ( Double, Double, Toil and Trouble  and Paradox of Thrift are two of several) , about their failure to comprehend even the most basic school district finance principles, but I stopped at those two and declared Mr. Shelton a Limited Thinker for the first time (Mr. Bond is a repeat offender,  see Done Waiting for Mr. Bond ).  So when I first read Mr. Shelton’s latest post “AP Reports States’ Funds ‘Slashed’, ‘Depleted’”, and saw this graph

I sadly thought here is a young “research fellow” going down the same path as the other Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs limited thinkers being unable to think clearly or do real research.  But then I noticed the graph has changed.  The total numbers for each year are now less and they appear clearly to be lower by the amount of the “double-counting” of “Non-Revenue Receipts” that are included in the first graph, which was the most obvious half of my prior critique.  So there is hope for this new thinker and I want to continue his education.

Here’s what he says in the earlier post after trying to convince us that Oklahoma schools are awash in funding:

“Tragically, too much of this increased funding hasn’t made it to the classroom where it could most directly benefit students.”  Then he pleas for giving school districts flexibility to re-allocate funding by saying, “For instance, lawmakers should send to a vote of the people a resolution allowing a larger percentage of local ad valorem dollars to be utilized for teacher salaries and other classroom expenses, rather than for buildings and technology upgrades only.” 

In the more recent post he echoes the same thought, “Murphy (the Associated Press writer) never explains why, with over $2 billion increased funding in a decade and with “new buildings and huge football stadiums,” school districts fail to prioritize teachers.”  Again his thinking (or the editorial direction he was given) has led him to the conclusion there is plenty of money, some of it just needs to be re-directed from its current uses to higher priority expenditures like teacher salaries.

Here’s my new chart to help him think about that with facts at hand.

I show FY2009 and FY2016 to keep it simple and for the reasons I stated in my last post, i.e. the state was still making a reasonable effort through 2009; our policy-caused woes have occurred since then.  I do not include “Cash Forward” or fund balances for reasons I’ve repeatedly written about ( see Where to Begin? and Paradox of Thrift ) , primarily you don’t rely on one-time money to cover recurring expenses and these funds are almost entirely already committed and even encumbered.  The Total New Revenues shown are the same as in my earlier chart, taken directly from the same Oklahoma State Department of Education data Mr. Shelton shows, however they are broken down by “fund” instead of “source”.   This makes it easier to explain what the revenue is used for.  Let’s work from the bottom up.

All Other is mostly the OKC area MAPS funding and statewide private gifts to school districts.  (The 2009 amount includes $1.333 million to make the overall total equal the state’s numbers due to an error on their end that I can’t explain.)  Local boards already have control over these funds subject to the giver’s requirements.

Student Activities is controlled by Title 70 Okla. Statutes Sect. 5-129 and is essentially where athletics admissions, school fundraisers, and other student activity related funding is deposited and must be expended for school activity purposes.  This is not a source for teacher raises.

Sinking/Bond Project funds are controlled by Article 10, Section 26 of the Oklahoma Constitution as more fully spelled out in Title 70 Okla. Statutes Sect. 1-119 and 15-101 through 15-106.1.  These funds cannot be used for teacher salaries.  We will come back to this shortly.

Child Nutrition funds are primarily federal money for school breakfasts and lunches, money paid by parents and students for student meals, and a little bit of state matching funds to secure the federal money.  These expenditures are controlled by Title 70, Sect. 3-119 and federal law.  None of this money can be used for teacher salaries.

Building funds are derived from a 5 mill levy established by our state’s Constitution at Article 10, Sect. 10, specifically for the purpose of erecting and maintaining school buildings.  These funds also cannot be used for teacher salaries, BUT can be used to maintain and operate school buildings including utilities and custodial costs.  In effect, based on local discretion, these funds are essentially operational and can free up other unrestricted operational funds to be used for teacher salaries.

Lastly, I have combined the General and Co-op funds together since the latter is essentially operational funds combined by two or more school districts to carry out a joint educational program.  These funds can be, and are mostly, used to compensate instructional and other staff needed to operate our school programs.

Note the last three lines of my table; these show per student revenue for 2009 and 2016, first for all New Revenue which includes much that cannot be legally used for teacher pay, then for the General/Co-op funds only, and lastly adding in the Building funds which I pointed out are operational, even though not available for teacher pay.  Despite the silly math of the OCPA the reality is clear—Oklahoma school districts have less funding per student ($260 per student less in their general funds and $214 per student less including their building funds) available now to fund classroom instruction than eight years ago and we haven’t even considered that insurance, utility and fuel costs have all steadily risen and take a larger share of those operational dollars now than in 2009.

So what is our little thinker thinking when he decries the money spent on buildings, technology and football stadiums?  Those are all choices made by local communities, paid for with local property taxes out of district Sinking funds, to retire bonded indebtedness used pursuant to our state Constitution.  Apparently, if he understands state law which is a big IF, he is advocating allowing local communities to sell bonds, i.e. incur debt, to give teacher pay raises.  That’s a pretty shocking recommendation coming from a “conservative” think tank.  You see all the operational millage that school districts receive is provided for in Article 10, Sections 9 and 10, of our state constitution, namely 35 mills for the general fund of each school district based on its own valuation, another 4 mills raised county-wide and distributed by student population (was originally the funding for Oklahoma’s separate schools under segregation), and the 5 mills for the building fund.  All of this is already available, the building fund by substitution, for teacher pay as I’ve discussed above.  The only other millage allowed is for retiring bond debt.  The legislature can do no more without an amendment to our Constitution to increase property taxes.

So I don’t get it and I don’t think little thinker Shelton does either.  But there is hope that he will actually read, think and do research in the future before simply regurgitating the misinformation he is being paid to promulgate.  What is even more amazing is that he and others at the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs are given space in the Tulsa World, a reputable news organization that recently committed to a relationship with Politifact to enhance its fact-checking capacity in our state.  If the World is interested in facts it will give no space to OCPA Limited Thinkers until they learn how to read, think and research.

As always lunch is on me to the first to ID the location of the above photo showing me as king of thinkers—and good luck with that.