With hopes as bright as the clear March sunshine, some 700 members of the Oklahoma Public Employees Association, wearing green t-shirts that read “No Benefit Cut,”took to the south steps of the state Capitol on March 11 to hold a pay raise rally that was truly “one for the books.”
After a morning of lobbying around the Capitol, the members, some which were bused in from towns such as Sand Springs, Tulsa and Claremore went outside, armed with signs that read “$2,700 Pay Raise,” and “Don’t Cut Our Benefit Allowance.”
OPEA Deputy Director Scott Barger started off by asking those assembled if they were “sick and tired of being sick and tired?”
“If you are, it’s time you took destiny in your own hands and do something about it,” he said.
Barger went on to say that state employees were the “heart, hands and feet” of Oklahoma.
“You care for the sick and the elderly, you lift up children from abuse and neglect and you walk the corridors of our correctional facilities and alongside our roads, bridges and highways.”
Regarding the legislature, Barger called the law making body Oklahoma’s “Board of Directors.”
“Sometimes it seems as though all they care about is getting reelected,” he said. “We are here today to remind them of their responsibilities to the taxpayers of Oklahoma.”
After Barger’s opening and an introduction by OPEA Vice-President Connie Stockton, Executive Director Sterling Zearley took to the podium.
“HB 3108 is Dead!” Zearley said. (Later he and Barger would say goodbye to the bill by having the crowd sing “Na Na Na Na Hey Hey Hey Goodbye!)
Zearley went on to put some rumors to rest.
“There has been some wild talk that OPEA wrote HB 3108,” he said. “That could not be further from the truth. This association has fought the bill since the interim study last summer.”
After his remarks, Zearley introduced “the best Lt. Governor in Oklahoma history,” Jari Askins.
Referred to many times as one of OPEA’s greatest friends, Askins began her speech by thanking state employees for their hard work.
“As Lt. Governor, I spend a great deal of my time traveling across Oklahoma roads every day,” she said. “I know that it is state employees that make those roads safe for all of us.”
Next on the Lt. Governor’s agenda was Oklahoma’s poor record involving mental health issues.
“Oklahoma is so behind in the money we spend on mental health,” she said. “When we don’t take care of some of our most vulnerable citizens, they can eventually end up within our correctional facilities.”
Askins ended her presentation with a bit of a warning.
“We have all worked very hard to make sure that HB 3108 never reached the floor of the House, however, as it has never been voted upon, it could return at any time,” she said. “You must be careful not to let it come back.”
State Senator Kenneth Corn (D-Poteau), author of the state employee pay raise bill in the Senate, next addressed the crowd.
“For too long state employees have been at the back of the line when it comes receiving the compensation they deserve,” he said. “It’s time state employees are a priority.”
“You are going to hear over and over this year that ‘there’s not enough money,’” Corn said. “When a legislator tells you this, ask them whether or not they voted for tax cuts.”
Corn concluded by saying “Hold your legislature accountable for what they do, or what they don’t do.”
House Minority Leader Danny Morgan (D-Prague) next addressed the crowd.
“Welcome to your house,” he said. “It’s great that you are here and ready to fight for what you deserve, which is a pay raise.”
Morgan said that particularly troubling to him were the skyrocketing costs associated with personnel turnover in state government.
“As a small business owner, I know how much it costs to recruit and retain new employees,” he said. “With $85 million in turnover costs flying out the window every year, Oklahoma is not managing its resources very well,” he said.
Morgan went on.
“I know that while you are serving the public, you are thinking of buying your next tank of gas, of sending your children to college,” he said. “You need a $2,700 pay raise now!”
After brief remarks from Senate Co-President Pro Tempore Glenn Coffee, Rep. Brian Renegar (D-McAlester), who was the first House member to publicly endorse a pay raise, told a story regarding the media reaction to his stance.
“I was talking to a radio reporter on the phone who said ‘Isn’t $2,700 too much for a state employee pay raise,?’” he said. “I can’t repeat my answer to him in polite society!”
Sen. Andrew Rice (D-Oklahoma City) represented Senate Co-President Pro Tempore Mike Morgan.
“I want to ask you seriously if you are better off than you were four years ago,?” he said.
Rice continued by saying that a recent study showed the futility of the tax cuts enacted by the legislature last session.
“Oklahoma taxpayers averaged less than $100.00 per year because of the tax cuts,” he said. “And state employees have to do more with less and have gone too long without salary increases.”
With his constituents from the Rader Center in Sand Springs by his side, newly elected House Speaker Chris Benge next took the microphone.
“We are very early in the session,” he said. “And, with our budget situation as it is, we are going to have to make tough decisions.”
Benge went on to tell the members that they had qualified representation at the Capitol.
“We have found Sterling and Scott excellent to work with,” he said. “You have a very, very effective lobby team.”
Speaking last from the legislature was Rep. Wallace Collins (D-Norman).
“I want to tell you right now that I am going to do everything I can to get you the pay raise you deserve,” he said.
Batting cleanup at the rally was Governor Brad Henry.
“After all the years I have addressed state employees, this is by far the largest turnout I’ve ever seen,” he said.
After saying that Oklahoma had the best state employees in the country, Henry quieted the crowd by saying “unfortunately…….”
He finished his sentence by saying “you are not paid what you’re worth!”
Henry went on to discuss the market compensation study put in place last year by his executive order.
“State employee pay is not competitive,” he said. “And we lose them every day.”
“I am today committing to you my support in a long term compensation plan for state employees, he said, in an apparent reaction to the “rowdy” crowd.
“I will fight with you until the end,” the Governor said.
Also attending the rally were Rep. Scott Bighorse (D- Pawhuska), Rep. Neil Brannon (D-Arkoma), Rep. Ed Cannaday (D-Whitefield), Rep. Al Lindley (another OPEA member) (D-Oklahoma City), Rep. Ray McCarter (D-Marlow), Rep. Al McAffery (D-Oklahoma City), Rep. Scott Inman (D-Del City), Rep. Eric Proctor (D-Tulsa), Sen. Constance Johnson (D-Oklahoma City), Rep. Mike Shelton (D-Oklahoma City), Rep. Dale Turner (D-Holdenville), Rep. Chuck Hoskin (D-Vinita), Rep. Jerry McPeak (D-Muskogee), Rep. Larry Glenn (D-Miami) and Rep. Jerry Shoemake (D-Morris).
(Update..OPEA now estimates that 1,000 state employees attended the rally!)