BY ARNOLD HAMILTON
Gov. Brad Henry’s eighth – and final – State of the State address today was a combination trip down memory lane and power of positive thinking pep talk.
The approach was understandable: Facing a $1 billion-plus budget hole next year and draconian cuts in state services, it was far more pleasant to recall those glorious days of not-so-long ago when the state treasury was overflowing with energy tax revenues.
And let’s not forget: Brad Henry is at his core a glass-is-half-full kind of guy who’s always quick to remind that the storms won’t last forever and the sun will shine again some day – usually sooner, rather than later.
The problem is, Don’t Worry, Be Happy isn’t a leadership principle. What Oklahoma really needed was a Call to Arms – a sober acknowledgement of where we are and a specific prescription for how we can change things for the better.
Instead, in his address to a joint session of the 2010 Legislature, we heard lots of warm fuzzies like: “We have accomplished much together.” “We are bold when others hesitate.” “I am heartened by the certainty that our best days lie ahead.”
“I am so proud,” he said, “of the contributions we have been able to make to this incredible state these past seven years.”
True enough, Oklahoma’s early childhood education program – a cornerstone of Henry’s administration – is world renowned. Cutting-edge research in Alzheimer’s, sensor technology and weather forecasting is putting Oklahoma on the map internationally.
But it’s also true that the Democratic governor and Republican legislative leaders together steered the state government stagecoach off a cliff – pandering to the rich and the ignorant with $770 million in tax cuts during times of plenty.
Worse, they cut taxes rather than paying the state’s bills – two prime examples: money borrowed from pension funds or owed to the feds for building Sardis Lake.
It is true that Henry helped save public education from an even worse fate under the GOP-majority Legislature – some of whom want to break the teachers’ union, others of whom want to replace public schools with parochial or home schools.
But it’s a rhetorical sleight-of-tongue when Henry’s State of the State includes this line: “I will not tolerate any effort to cut teacher pay or siphon resources from our classrooms, our students, or our future.”
Hmmmmm. OK, so salaries won’t be cut for those teachers who are fortunate enough to keep their jobs. But you’ll notice: There was no promise to keep teachers from being laid off or to ensure contracts are renewed. What ensues is a vicious cycle: Fewer teachers, larger classes, less learning …
What I wanted to hear was Henry’s vision for how Oklahoma’s stagecoach gets pulled from the canyon’s depths.
Treasurer Scott Meacham offered a smidgen of insight during an afternoon briefing on the governor’s proposed budget for 2011.
Henry suggests consolidating some agencies [folding the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs Control into the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation, for example] to save money and stepping up tax collections [the state is losing as much as $180 million in sales tax on items purchased via the Internet] to bolster the sagging treasury.
None of these, however, are specific initiatives that Henry and Co. will push. In fact, Meacham described them simply as “ideas” for legislators to consider – or not.
How about some real leadership? Rather than “suggesting” lawmakers repeal or eliminate a few small corporate tax credits – some of which are being abused or aren’t working as designed – why not lead the charge to look at Oklahoma’s millions of dollars in corporate welfare?
Not too long ago, state Sen. Mike Mazzei, R-Tulsa, tried to persuade legislative leaders to repeal all the state’s corporate tax exemptions and start over. His plan was DOA.
The governor has political capital to spare. His approval ratings are still above 60% – almost unheard of for a governor in his eighth year. He could be a real hero if he used his bully pulpit to push for an end to corporate welfare – especially given the hard times facing so many rank-and-file Oklahomans.
If Brad Henry can be an eternal optimist, I can dream big dreams … can’t I?
– Arnold Hamilton is editor of The Oklahoma Observer