Here's to the State of Oklahoma, You've Torn Out the Heart of...

Here's to the State of Oklahoma, You've Torn Out the Heart of...
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In the 1960s, the great folk singer Phil Ochs sang an ode to the state of Mississippi which had had torn out the heart of the nation as a result of its odious racial practices and the buffoonery of its political leaders.

If Mr. Ochs were still around today, Oklahoma would serve as a good substitute for Mississippi. Not quite as evil but not far removed.

In the last weeks before leaving for summer break, the Oklahoma state legislature promoted measures to gut the state's public school system, eliminated earned income tax credits, pushed the assignment of felony status to performing an abortion (though this was vetoed by the Governor for being unconstitutional) and introduced a transgender bathroom bill which would require Oklahoma schools to provide separate accommodations to students who object on "religious grounds" to sharing shower, bathroom or locker room facilities with transgender individuals. They also filed a resolution calling for the impeachment of Barack Obama.

Fifty-nine members of the Oklahoma House of Representatives -- Democrats and Republicans alike -- voted against a proposal to raise the state cigarette tax by $1.50 a pack, which ensured that a plan to cut the rate the state pays to Medicaid health-care providers by 25 percent was on track to go into effect at the end of the month.

These cuts, the Tulsa World reported, are sure to result in an exodus of doctors who have been told to refuse patients at the lower rate and will force patients who can't get proper treatment to go to emergency rooms, driving up unreimbursed hospital expenses and shifting costs to insured patients, whose premiums will go up.

At least a dozen state hospitals and many nursing-homes may close, prompting many seniors to move elsewhere and the potential loss of over ten thousand jobs.

The main reason Republicans spearheaded the drive against the bill was because they didn't want to be part of raising taxes and didn't want to be part of "Obamacare," even though the tax hike's links to the Affordable Care Act funding to extend health-care coverage to 175,000 poor Oklahomans was removed from the bill.

In the last five years, the Conservative government of Governor Mary Fallin has cut $500 million from the state's Medicaid program, which has threatened a "humanitarian crisis," according to Tandie Hastings, Head of the Oklahoma Association of Health Care Providers.

Meanwhile, many Oklahoma school districts have gone to a four day school-week to save money after rampant budget cuts, something unheard of even in the poorest parts of Africa. Class sizes have been increasing to Third World levels, teachers are being grossly underpaid and many after-school programs are being cut at a time when the youth crime rate is on the rise.

The Tulsa World has in the last year written many heart-wrenching stories about the layoff of teachers and support staff, of teachers who are overwhelmed by the large class sizes and can't do their jobs properly, and of outstanding teachers who cannot continue in the profession because of low pay.

The Saturday May 21 edition of the World profiled Hunter Alexander, a popular art teacher at Union High-School in Tulsa who is retiring after four years to seek a job in sales because he cannot support his family on his current salary. The article quoted one of his students who said that Mr. Alexander was the best teacher she'd ever had; that when he "paints he just does it and it comes out a masterpiece." His Principle Michelle Cundy said the school was "losing a superstar and its' heartbreaking."

If it is unable to retain talented and dedicated teachers like Mr. Alexander, it goes without saying that the quality of education in Oklahoma will decline considerably, and the state's young people will be the ones to suffer.

The state of Oklahoma currently faces a $1.3 billion budget shortfall which has resulted from the drop in oil and gasoline prices over the last years, low taxes and continuous tax subsidies given to the state's large corporations who bankroll the Republican Party.

Like West Virginia and coal, Oklahoma's economy is dependent on oil and the market and price fluctuations surrounding it. The lack of an educated workforce along with political myopia has been a factor preventing the diversification of its economy. Some state leaders have envisioned converting the state into the Silicon Valley for the civilian drone industry, though the lack of an educated workforce is a major barrier to its realization.

The current cuts in education are nothing less than a disaster consequently for the state's long-term economic health.

Especially in considering that the era of fossil fuels may slowly be coming to an end with the growing viability of clean energy alternatives.

Oklahoma has long been at the forefront of the global warming denial movement. The Senior Senator from the state, James Inhofe, bears comparison to the Governor of Mississippi in that his "speeches," as Phil Ochs sang, "are the ravings of a clown." Inhofe has made his career through fear-mongering and by attacking the Environmental Protection Agency and climate scientists.

He wrote a book characterizing climate change as a "giant liberal hoax" which received backing from the large oil companies that have bankrolled his political campaigns.

Sadly Inhofe has barely been challenged in the electoral arena. His Democratic opponent in 2014 actually ran mainly to his right and failed to challenge his attitude towards global warming.

Oklahoma does have a populist tradition as the birthplace of Woody Guthrie and center of the largest socialist party movement outside New York in the 1910s, and the state supported Bernie Sanders in the Democratic Primary. Many of citizens are aghast at what the Republican dominated legislature has been doing, and the young people do not support the GOP.

The current political landscape, though, is as bleak as it gets. While not as bad as Mississippi in the 1960s which was wantonly murdering African-Americans, Oklahoma's policies are an affront to decent people and should be the target of heightened social activism and concern in the rest of the United States.

Jeremy Kuzmarov teaches at the University of Tulsa.

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