Smoke in our eyes
BY JULIE DELCOUR Associate Editor
Sunday, July 08, 2012
7/08/12 at 2:46 AM
You could virtually smell the smoke simply by watching or reading reports out of the Colorado Springs area, which recently has experienced the most destructive wildfire in its history. That raging, relentless inferno, which is partially contained, has consumed 350 homes and thousands of acres.
Yet, even in the worst of times the grateful crowds turn out, including many fire victims, to greet firefighters - both volunteer and government-employed, local and otherwise. On July 4, Colorado Springs Independent columnist Rich Tosches summed up the scene:
"For days, people have begun lining the sidewalks by 7:30 each morning... They return each evening before 8. ...They wait, young and old, men, women and children, some holding American flags, some holding handmade signs of thanks, and some just trying to hold back the tears.
"It's not an imaginary place. It's very real. ... As the heavy, sickening smoke of the Waldo Canyon Fire washes across our village and keeps our worst fears alive, there's a place where you can stand and cheer and cry out from deep inside, a place where the soul finally finds something more powerful than grief. It's a place ... where you can watch the exhausted, soot-covered heroes coming back from the flames or summoning the courage to throw themselves once again into the godless fire."
Can you imagine anyone in those crowds bad-mouthing those 1,500 public servants or volunteers who continue to exhibit "unfathomable bravery" battling the blaze? Would anyone dare suggest that maybe the private sector could have handled the situation better?
Yet almost daily, on the campaign trail, in the media and even in casual conversation, government workers take a bashing. What's often forgotten is that taxpayers don't fund salaries and benefits for government workers. Taxpayers purchase the labor of government employees, and all those government employees also pay taxes on the money that they've earned.
We loved government workers (and volunteers) who raced in to help after Timothy McVeigh blew up an Oklahoma City federal building 17 years ago; we worshipped those public servants who became the heroes of 9/11 in New York City, Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C. in 2001. They each and every one deserved our adoration and appreciation.
Not every government worker, of course, has a heroic mission. Most labor in anonymity. Teachers don't fight fires or fight crime but they fight ignorance, and in Oklahoma, the Legislature is starving public education and other important government agencies.
In a recent report, Oklahoma Public Policy Institute Director David Blatt pointed out that in fiscal 2012, state government employed 35,504 full-time employees - a reduction of 3,804 workers, or 9.9 percent, over the past three years. Since 2001, the state's population has increased by about 330,000 people, while the state-employed work force has decreased.
Ten of the 15 largest agencies have smaller work forces than they did in fiscal 2001. Only two have more workers than they did in FY 2009. Very hard hit is the Department of Corrections, which has 820 fewer employers - 16 percent - than in 2001. This decrease puts employees and the public at risk. Would anyone seriously argue that fewer DOC workers are needed now, with an inmate population of nearly 26,000, than in 2001, when there were several thousand fewer inmates?
All this shrinkage has occurred during a decade in which Oklahomans have enjoyed gradual tax cuts. Individually the tax cuts do not amount to much per family or individual. Collectively, they could have prevented or ameliorated harmful downsizing.
The number of public school workers (considered local - not state - employees) also has decreased dramatically since 2009, when a poor economy forced the first of many budget cuts. This year, with state revenues rising and with nearly $600 million in the state's "rainy day fund," common education still received basically a standstill budget from the Legislature. (Schools also receive federal dollars, which, too, have waned). Enrollments, meanwhile, have risen, with more than 30 children in many classrooms. Donors have even chipped in private funds to help schools in Jenks and Tulsa. What's next, bake sales?
In the report, Blatt poses a salient question: "Have years of funding cuts shrunk state government to the point where it is no longer capable of performing the core functions that Oklahomans expect: educating our children, training our work force, maintaining our infrastructure, protecting our communities and aiding our most vulnerable family members and neighbors?"
The honest answer is yes - a truth not many politicians share on the campaign trail. Despite efforts by the governor and many lawmakers, let's not forget that yet another tax cut narrowly was averted last session. State government here is not bloated. Neither, in most cases, is local or county government.
It often seems that we love our public servants only when we're the public being served. Otherwise smoke gets in our eyes.
Julie DelCour, 918-581-8379
A firefighter looks up at the damage caused by a fire at the Windsail apartments in Tulsa. JAMES GIBBARD/Tulsa World