Muskogee Legislative Meeting – OPEA Members Get Their Chance to Speak!

Perhaps it was Jacquline McGuire, DHS worker from Okmulgee who said it best..

“When did it become more important to teach a child than to keep it safe?”

That sentiment, which references Oklahoma schoolteachers’ receiving pay raises over state employees plus many other heartfelt stories, observations and questions were shared as OPEA held a highly charged, highly informative legislative town hall in the Muskogee library January 17.

“We had every state agency in the area represented,” said OPEA executive director Sterling Zearley. “Some 125 people crowded into that room to hear their legislators give them the latest from the capitol,” he said.

Attending the meeting were Representative Jerry McPeak (D), Representative George Faught (R) and Senator Earl Garrison (D).

Retiree Carol Miller began the meeting by asking how many of the attendees weren’t OPEA members.

“You’re welcome,” she said to the several who raised their hands.

Miller went on to introduce Zearley, who gave the crowd a list of ground rules before the legislators took the stage.

“This is a whole new day at OPEA,” he said. “Tonight is not about Democrats or Republicans, but about those in the legislature who are going to support our platform and other issues.”

Zearley also praised the crowd for taking the time to attend.

“This is what OPEA is all about..bringing our members together with our lawmakers to make things happen for state employees,” he said.

First to speak was Rep. McPeak who told the crowd early on that he is very concerned about the toll that tax cuts could potentially make on Oklahoma.

“I voted against tax cuts, but I certainly hope they work,” he said. “However, when 80 percent of the tax cuts go to only 20 percent of the people, there is something wrong.”

McPeak went on to compliment state employees on their work, while also adding dismay that many had not received a pay raise in several years.”

“You are the front line for the taxpayers of Oklahoma,” he said. “And all too often you’re hidden.”

Representative McPeak then took time to praise OPEA.

“Those of you who don’t belong to OPEA need to join immediately,” he said. “This is an important and impressive organization and truly the only voice for state employees at the Capitol,” he said.

As far as his goals for the session, McPeak said he felt like a stop gap.

“Sometimes I feel that it is my job to keep people from doing something stupid,” he said.

McPeak concluded by offering attendees his assurances that he would always vote for state employee issues and pay raises.

“You deserve a pay raise,” he said. “When I found out that there were state employees that had gone 14 years without one, I was shocked,” he said. “I am also for a perpetual COLA for state retirees.”

A ODOT worker in attendance brought a sobering thought as McPeak ended his presentation

“There are three of us here who have been inches away from being hit,” he said. “We have the most dangerous jobs in the state and haven’t had a pay raise in many, many years.”

Taking a different tack regarding the Oklahoma economy was Representative Faught, who, along with his party, supported tax cuts.

“It is our feeling that the more money you have in your pockets, the more you will spend to bolster our economy,” he said.

To answer a direct question regarding pay raises, Faught said that he understood that the issue was a priority for Republicans.

“I understand that state employee pay raises are in discussion right now in House leadership offices,” he said.

Faught also affirmed that he would vote for a state employee pay raise.

Finally Senator Garrison began his presentation by mentioning the recently completed DOC audit.

“We spent almost a million dollars to find out something we already knew, “he said. “That state employees do the best that they can under the circumstances.”

Garrison also mentioned that Oklahoma has to change the way that it punishes offenders.

In Kansas they have some 5,000 people behind bars,” he said. “In Oklahoma we have 25,000.

Garrison then mentioned an idea that gained crowd support.

“Oklahoma bailed out the oil companies in the 80s,” he said. “And now that they are enjoying record profits perhaps it’s time, in a lean budget year, to have them pay it back.”

“We have to give you a livable wage,” Garrison said. “I will always support any pay raises for state employees and will also support the governor should he decide to tap the rainy fund for state employee raises.”

An employee at the Oklahoma Health Department mentioned that staffing is dangerously short.

“We can’t take a day off because we don’t have enough employees to get the job done,” she said.

“This was an extraordinary meeting,” Zearley said. “I think our message came through loud and clear.”

Zearley also wanted to give credit for members and staff who manned a phone bank the night before to urge state employees to attend.

“Board member Connie Stockton, Alicia Wright and Reba Robinson from our staff, Carol Miller and Linda Crain from the Tourism Department did a wonderful job encouraging our members to attend this meeting,” he said.

Local employees who wish to have a similar legislative meeting should call the OPEA office. The next scheduled meeting will be in Enid on January 31.

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