With topics ranging from state employee pay, retirement and insurance, as well as privatization, agency budgets and the future of state employment, candidates Dan McMahan (D) and Charles Ortega (R) provided a civil discussion of these and other issues in front of some 35 state employees during a recent candidate forum at the Altus Public Library.
OPEA Executive Director Sterling Zearley moderated the event, which offered the first opportunity for the candidates to meet face to face during the campaign.
In his opening statement, McMahan talked about his experience as a state employee and former member OPEA member, telling the audience his history offers him a unique perspective regarding the challenges of state employee concerns.
“I was a proud member of OPEA during a Republican administration in Oklahoma,” McMahan said. “While my decision sometimes made me unpopular, I couldn’t stand by and not be involved in trying to help make the situations better for state employees. I feel this experience will help me as I advocate for my future constituents at the state Capitol.”
Ortega then followed with his response. “Being a state employee doesn’t pay worth a flip,” he said.
Ortega went on to explain that, as a small business owner of many years in the Altus community, he understands employees must be paid what they’re worth.
“In any situation you must pay your people, or you will lose them,” Ortega said.
A major concern for voters in the district, which includes the Oklahoma State Reformatory in Granite, is the funding of DOC.
“This summer, the current Republican speaker of the House canceled an interim study regarding a study of DOC,” said McMahan. “As a private citizen, I was appalled that the legislature continued to turn their backs on the very dangerous situation that continues to germinate within the Department of Corrections. I have read the summary of the recent million dollar audit of the Department of Corrections and was surprised to see that pay and personnel issues were not mentioned,” he said. Í plan, if elected, to work feverishly to better the facilities and personnel practices at DOC.”
Ortega agreed, adding that sentencing issues must be addressed as well. “We institutionalize far too many Oklahomans,” Ortega said. “I think it’s important that we review sentencing guidelines while also looking into DOC.”
State employee health insurance was the next topic.
“As a former state employee, I know that at many times we work at a less than market salary in order to receive state benefits,” McMahan said. “However, with rising costs, coupled with the lowering of the benefit allowance, we’re going to have to take a serious look at these benefits so that the purchasing power of state employees is not further diminished.”
Ortega followed by saying he supports any initiative that would shore up state employee insurance.
With regard to privatization, candidate Ortega said that, in some instances, it makes sense to take some services out of the government’s hands.
“As a small business owner, I believe that it is sometimes the right thing to privatize,” he said.
McMahan disagreed. “There can be instances when very short term privatization might be necessary,” he said. “But, in the long run, it can be a very dangerous position for any government to take. Private prisons sound good in theory but I don’t think they work very well in practice.”
Retiree issues were also addressed and both candidates agreed that politics should be taken out of the process.
“It is difficult for me to believe that politicians would toy with even the smallest COLAs for state retirees,” Ortega said.
“I promise to work to help state retirees with their benefits and COLAs,” McMahan said.
In conclusion, McMahan stressed his experience both as an attorney and state employee, while Ortega continued to mention his history as a small businessman.
“We can’t expect to have our state employees earn a substandard income,” McMahan said. “In my business I know that I have to pay my employees the market rate to keep them.”
Ortega continued, speaking of state employee pay and retention. “You do what you do because you want to because you want to serve your fellow Oklahomans,” he said. “We can’t expect you to work for less, or taking on more duties. We have to catch you up so that you are not further behind every time you receive a salary increase.”
McMahan mentioned the $85 million in turnover it costs the state because of low pay and overwork.
“We have to get the attention of House leadership and I promise to be a constant advocate for all of your issues. I’m very proud of my state employment service and I’m very proud of the public servants that help our citizens every day.”
In conclusion, Zearley told the crowd they can make a difference in the election, but they have to register to vote and encourage their friends and family to do the same.
“This is one of the most important elections for state employees that we’ve experienced in a long time,” Zearley said.