By Patrick B. McGuigan
OKLAHOMA CITY – From an editor’s notebook: closure of a state office in Tulsa, Sierra Club lobbying, a Corporation Commission hearing on
regional haze, and conservative critics of the Common Core.
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In rapid response to federal spending cuts, Oklahoma Commissioner of Labor Mark Costello plans to close the state Labor Department’s Tulsa office by the end of May.
Costello told state Capitol reporters on March 26 (Tuesday) that many services will still be provided after ending the “bricks and mortar” aspects of the facility this summer. Shuttering the Tulsa office could pull the agency’s workforce down to 68 employees, from its current 78.
The agency has offered Voluntary Buyouts (VBOs) for ten employees, but will work with Tulsa employees willing to transfer to Oklahoma City.
In response to a question from CapitolBeatOK, Costello said federal officials communicated to the state Labor Department that the reductions came in response to sequestration (automatic spending cuts) passed in Congress and signed into law by President Obama.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency notified the state Labor Department that $162,000 in funding for state-run asbestos abatement programs would be ended.
The federal Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) is nipping “up to $300,000” from Safety Pays, a worksite consultation program that rewards implementation of safety standards in private and public workplaces.
Finally, statistical information-gathering on workforce and labor issues will be cut around $18,000, according to a notice Costello received from the U.S. Department of Labor.
Commissioner Costello said his agency had moved quickly to be ready with contingency plans in the event of federal cuts, and was moving to comply with legislation advocated by Speaker of the House T.W. Shannon, R-Lawton, for agencies to be ready to implement spending reductions quickly if federal cuts are implemented.
Costello said his agency had planned “proactively” and would continue to provide many services through remote technology, in cooperation with Career Tech sites and even, in some cases, union halls where licenses can be obtained.
Looking ahead, Costello said creation of an administrative workers compensation system a reform he supports, might trim four compliance officers now employed at the state Labor Department.
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Members of the Oklahoma chapter of the Sierra Club worked the halls of the state Capitol March 26 (Tuesday), advocating rail transportation, environmental protection, support for local farmers and drought mitigation.
David Ocamb, director of the group, assailed legislation opposing the United Nations’ “Agenda 21,” saying critics of the United Nations have promulgated a “fictionalized concept.”
In a prepared statement provided to CapitolBeatOK, Ocamb said, “We don’t have time for global conspiracy theories about black helicopters. Our elected officials should be far more focused on making the lives (of) our citizens better and not on extremist rhetoric to fire up their political base in elections.”
He asserted anti-Agenda 21 bills would “threaten research at our universities, conservation programs in our local communities, and access to data and research at our public libraries.”
One speaker at a Sierra Club briefing for Capitol reporters was Vic Hutchinson, an emeritus professor from the University of Oklahoma. He denounced legislation he deemed “anti-science,” specifically measures from state Rep. Sally Kern, R-Oklahoma City, and Sen. Josh Brecheen, R-Coalgate, that would encourage science teachers allow discussions of views, other than evolution, about human origins.
Hutchinson said he was optimistic that “creationist” bills can be stopped, but said he remained concerned about “sneaky floor amendments.” He insisted there is “no real controversy among scientists” about evolutionary theory, and characterized the Discovery Institute, a Seattle-based group that promotes alternative theories, as “anti-science.”
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Speaking of the Sierra Club, the executive director of Oklahoma Industrial Energy Consumers, Tom Schroedter, slapped both that group and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in a letter to the editor of CapitolBeatOK.
EPA proposals could impact coal-fired power plants in Oklahoma, and if implemented could “lower local tax revenues and cause significantly higher electricity costs, ranging from 11 percent to 15 percent,” Schroedter said.
Schroedter said proposed EPA standards “would unnecessarily raise electricity rates in Oklahoma, putting our local economy at risk with the loss of jobs, lower local tax revenues and cause significantly higher electricity costs, ranging from 11 percent to 15 percent.
“This proposal would cost the average Oklahoma family more than $200 each year, and most likely, even more in the future. Moreover, the cost to Oklahoma businesses would be millions of dollars starting immediately. We are already stretched far enough as Oklahoma taxpayers and business owners, we don’t need another tax brought forth by interests outside of our state.
“If fully implemented, a settlement over regional haze will deeply hurt affordable energy options in Oklahoma. Our state currently pays one third less than the national average on our electricity. We do not want to turn into California or New York – states that pay significantly higher rates.”
The Oklahoma Corporation Commission has scheduled a hearing on the regional haze issue this Thursday, March 28.
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State Rep. Gus Blackwell, R-Laverne, is working with activists from Restore Oklahoma Public Education (R.O.P.E.) to oppose the federal Common Core curriculum. A March 27 (Wednesday) rally will include acivists Traci Montgomery, Glenda Murphey and Jennie White, as well as the Rev. Paul Blair.
Blackwell sponsored House Bill 1907, to create a task force to critically examine the Common Core. The measure cleared committee, then advanced from the House to the Senate this month. Blackwell has been told the measure will not be heard in the Senate.
“The Common Core State Standards must be brought to bear under public scrutiny before we move further into its implementation. Taxpayers should not bear the brunt of a program for which we know little about, even three years after its inception,” Blackwell said in a statement to CapitolBeatOK.
You may contact Patrick B. McGuigan, Oklahoma City bureau chief for the Watchdog.org network, at Patrick@capitolbeatok.com and follow us on Twitter: @capitolbeatok.