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The education of Tom Coburn

What the hell is he doing?



Tom Coburn

Christopher Halloran / Shutterstock.com

His superciliousness was palpable.

“So teachers, don’t take this as something against you,” Coburn … said.  “This is about the leadership that leads Oklahoma.”1

And with that, the former senator helped launch a petition drive to stop House Bill 1010XX—landmark legislation that will give Oklahoma teachers their first raise in a decade—from going into effect.

What kind of man picks this kind of fight?

Mock the Oklahoma legislature all you want—and nothing brings me more joy—but what it did in passing HB 1010XX took courage. The bill provides teachers with a $6,000 raise while increasing taxes on cigarettes, motor fuel, and oil and gas production. For too long, Oklahoma legislators have been at the behest of State Question 640, which prevents all tax increases unless approved by 75 percent of both the House and the Senate. You can’t get 75 percent of Oklahoma reps to agree the earth isn’t 6,000 year old, so passage of this bill ain’t nothing.

Of course, 1010XX did not do everything teachers wanted, nor everything public education needs. But Oklahoma Republicans agreed to raise taxes and teachers got a six-grand raise.

Let’s relish that for a moment.

Moment’s over.

Coburn, who has spent precisely zero time in state government yet pretends to know the inner workings of it better than anyone, believes the bill was the worst thing imaginable.

Former U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn said … the tax hike aimed at providing raises for teachers and more funding for schools was “the worst of government.”2

He then dusted off shopworn conservative talking points about government spending, as if there’s a line in the state budget titled “Waste, Fraud, and Abuse” that only he can see.

Oklahomans should know that the governor vetoed a bill requiring all spending to be put online, so all Oklahomans can see how our tax dollars are spent. [Fallin] also refused to share how much in federal grants each department received and what that money was used for.3

Yeah, that’s the problem. Not the decades worth of tax cuts we couldn’t afford, not the 28.2 percent cuts to education over the past decade, not the cowering to Harold Hamm and Larry Nichols—it’s that Mary Fallin refused to itemize every orange barrel the Department of Transportation bought last year.

Coburn is a carnival barker whose satchel is filled with the equivalent of legislative hair tonic and magic beads.

“We’re not spending money where it really matters,” Coburn said. “Our greatest asset is our children. We ought to have our investment in the people who are going … to make a difference.”4

That’s something about which he’s never actually cared.

When he was in Washington, the National Education Association gave Coburn an F every year he served.

Coburn voted against extending grants to local educational agencies, voted no on using corporate tax loopholes to help fund education, voted against the funding of community learning centers, but voted for school vouchers, and, of course, voted in favor of prayer in public schools. In 2010, he told Laura Ingraham:

“I don’t even think education is a role for the federal government.” As a matter of fact, Thomas Jefferson said, ‘I believe in the federal government having a role for education but the only way to do that is to change the Constitution.’”5

If you’re going to trot out Thomas Jefferson to bolster your point, try not to embarrass yourself. Our third president founded the nation’s first public university, the University of Virginia, and not only supported public education, but thought funding by means of taxation was a bargain.

“[T]he tax which will be paid for this purpose [education],” Jefferson wrote, “is not more than the thousandth part of what will be paid to kings, priests, and nobles who will rise up among us if we leave the people in ignorance.”

Further, this mantra of low taxes upon which Coburn genuflects has been a dismal failure:

“Seven of the 12 states with the biggest cuts in general school funding since 2008 — Arizona, Idaho, Kansas, Michigan, Mississippi, North Carolina, and Oklahoma — also have cut income tax rates in recent years,” the report said.6

This is the worst of government.

Equally troubling is the company Coburn keeps. Joining him in the petition to overturn 1010XX was Ronda Vuillemont-Smith, head of the local 9-12 Project movement.

The 9-12 Project was started by Glenn Beck, who hoped to get “us all back to the place we were on September 12, 2001” with nine principles and twelve values Beck believes are shared with the Founding Fathers’ vision. (But Beck also said former President Obama has a “deep-seated hatred for white people.”)

For her part, Vuillemont-Smith, Tulsa’s 9-12 leader, once wrote of the Republican Party, “We have always been the party of God’s grace and of hard work.”7

Her modesty is breathtaking.

The movement has some other unusual fans.

Despite the tea parties’ ostensible purpose of opposing taxation, many of the signs today at the 9/12 march attacked President Obama using explicit racial and ethnic smears.8

And elsewhere:

I do believe our President is a racist […] But I think it’s mainly communism that he’s going to want to tell us what to wear, what to do, have his little red book like Mao because he really is a communist.

This is the company the senator keeps?

My commitment to the people of Oklahoma has always been that I would serve no more than two terms. Our founders saw public service and politics as a calling rather than a career. That’s how I saw it when I first ran for office in 1994, and that’s how I still see it today. I believe it’s important to live under the laws I helped write, and even those I fought hard to block.9

If only he would.

True, he served two terms … but twice, for a total of 18 years, six years in the House, 12 in the Senate. Since his retirement, he has lent his imprimatur to all kinds of cockamamie ideas, like a constitutional convention10—only the worst idea in American politics—and now has set his all-knowing Oz glare on teacher salaries.

Coburn’s plan includes cutting wasteful spending, conducting genuine audits, trimming the Medicaid rolls, cutting corporate welfare, using existing funds from the School Land Trust, increasing the cap on scholarship limits, diverting funds from the Tobacco Settlement Endowment Trust, changing the rules for using property tax revenues, legislative line-item budgeting for higher education, trimming higher education administrative costs, and more.11

Cutting wasteful spending … how come nobody’s ever thought of that before?

Coburn said cutting corporate welfare subsidies to the wind industry, often owned by foreign companies, could generate up to $172 million annually.

Except not so much. Literally. Not so much.

A high-stakes battle is being waged in the state capitol over a bill that would kill a wind industry subsidy that currently is costing Oklahoma taxpayers about $70 million a year.12

Further, using money from the School Land Trust is not only stupid and shortsighted, it’s unconstitutional.13 Tapping the Tobacco Settlement Endowment Trust means taking money and treatment away from lung cancer patients—and it raises constitutional questions.14 And the legislative line-item budgeting for higher education and trimming higher education administrative costs is a time-honored sop easily debunked with a calculator.

Meanwhile our rank for spending on instruction is near the lowest (47th) … in FY 2015, Oklahoma spent $4,466 per student on instruction. If the state somehow moved EVERY dollar that we spend on district administration into instruction, our ranking would… still be 47th! We wouldn’t improve by a single state.15

But even if you could get it all done, which you can’t, and even if it were to raise enough money to fund teacher salaries and increase necessary education funding, which it wouldn’t, it would take years to address all the constitutional and legal challenges, meaning—wait for it—teachers would need to wait God knows how long to get a raise.

Only a cynic would think that’s Coburn’s intention.

Call me a cynic.

The senator didn’t advocate restoring the gross production tax to 7 percent, which could raise $312.9 million,16 didn’t call for eliminating the tax deduction on the capital gains, which has cost the state $474 million over the past five years,17 and didn’t call for an even modest increase the income tax rate. Since 2004, we have cut 1.022 billion dollars in taxes in Oklahoma. That’s how you correct funding issues, not by throwing more children off Medicaid.18

With the passage of 1010XX, Oklahoma took the first step towards responsible governance, while Senator Coburn lurked on the political landscape like Billy Bigelow from “Carousel.” For Coburn to stand alongside groups like 9-12, using cooked numbers and preposterous alternatives, arguing the only way to help teachers is to hurt those in need is not only a false, mean choice—it’s typical.

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