Just how far things have gone became clear for Aislinn Burrows and her wife, Carmen, when they stopped at McDonald’s on the turnpike between Tulsa and Oklahoma City recently.
Probably more than half the state has stopped at one time or another at the W. D. “Bill” Hoback Plaza, which has “nice clean bathrooms” according to Foursquare reviews. In recent years, the restaurant was updated with Route 66 art and the bathrooms usually are clean and well-tended.
On this day, however, when Carmen left the car to use the restroom, another woman in the bathroom approached and started asking Carmen if she was male or female. Was she sure she was in the right bathroom?
“I’m a Christian and what you people are doing is wrong,” the woman told Carmen, who is a woman.
“If you’re a Christian, then don’t judge,” Carmen said. Then Carmen told her to take a science class, and left.
The incident left the couple shaken. In a same-sex marriage since 2013, they felt afraid for the first time.
“It was in the middle of the afternoon on a Saturday. It was a very heavily trafficked restroom facility. It was the only restroom facility on the turnpike,” Burrows said. “Someone who would feel it’s completely accessible to come up to someone in a restroom facility and be so confrontational and harassing, it does give us pause for concern.
“What’s the next step? There is no protection for people based on the way they look.”
The next step for the Oklahoma Legislature that week was to attempt to pass a law regulating use of restrooms by transgender Oklahomans not once, not twice, but five times. The bill was repeatedly resurrected and attached to “shell” bills, or bills stripped of original titles and held to resurrect failed legislation.
Its co-author, Sen. Gary Stanislawski, R-Tulsa, didn’t know how his bill would actually work in practice. However he suggested that students opposed to sharing bathrooms with transgender students could use the bathroom in shifts.
The extreme rhetoric at the national level and in states such as North Carolina suddenly erupted at the Oklahoma state Capitol and swept across the state, turning up in websites and social media as well as in pulpits.
For Burrows, the undertone of intolerance emerged at the Hoback Plaza McDonald’s bathrooms.
“I think the negative and harsh rhetoric we are seeing at a national level must be filtering down to state level, especially considering our top officials are being considered for national positions in the GOP,” she said.
Burrows noted that Gov. Mary Fallin is being touted as a possible running mate to presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump.
Last-ditch efforts to pass the transgender bathroom bill and a bill that would have made abortion a felony have many speculating that the legislative session that concluded last week was out of bounds, even among some who support the governing party. And while many in the Republican-controlled state Legislature preferred to focus on hot-button social issues, perhaps a welcome distraction, the state’s budget was drowning in red ink.
Oklahoma City commentator and consultant Ron Black, whose former WKY talk show skewered many Democrats, said the conservative message has been drowned out by social issues to the detriment of his party.
“The Republicans have failed. And this is my party, man,” Black said. “This is supposed to be the party of fiscal conservative values, and instead they are focusing completely on social issues as a party, and things not critical to the infrastructure of Oklahoma.”
Black said the issues he believes are actually important to the state revolve around the economy and quality of life.
“If you want business to come to Oklahoma, you have to have good jobs, good schools, you’ve got to have good roads and bridges. It’s not about whether it’s a felony to perform an abortion. It’s not about those things, frankly. That will do nothing but cost taxpayers more money.”
Those outside the state are also taking notice of the state’s political climate. In a Sunday editorial titled “Oklahoma Makes the Poor Poorer,” the New York Times lambasted the state’s political leaders.
A story in the Washington Post last week focused on the level of citizens’ anger at Oklahoma lawmakers and quoted one GOP lawmaker who said he was “ashamed” of his party’s focus on the transgender bathroom bill.
Meanwhile, a widely shared Reuters story pieced together an eye-opening expose of how Oklahoma’s generous tax giveaways to the oil and gas industry cost the state $470 million last year. That amount nearly equaled the state’s budget deficit during the 2015 session.
Walters: ‘dog whistle issues’ for base
For former Oklahoma Gov. David Walters, legislation such as the bathroom bill is part of a larger pattern. In addition to comments in the Post story, Walters deepened his explanation of the Legislature’s erratic, end-of-the-year scramble.
“It’s not by accident that in a single day they make abortion a felony, pass a resolution to impeach Obama, and advanced the transgendered bathroom bill, trying to make them (transgender people) more radioactive,” said Walters, a Democrat.
“I think it’s because they had expected and hoped they had gotten a pass because their irresponsible budget policy cut taxes by a billion dollars. … They assumed it would be attributed to another gas and oil cycle. That sorta got found out.”
Walters said GOP lawmakers “realized as they were getting tagged with the budget catastrophe.”
“They needed to pull out the old dog whistle issues for their base. You don’t get that much crazy in one day by accident, even in Oklahoma state government.”
Oklahoma State Sen. David Holt, R-Oklahoma City, in that same Post story, said the transgender bathroom bill came up all of a sudden, in the midst of important education funding debates.
“But while students in my district were quite literally marching in the streets to the Capitol to plead with the Legislature to do something about how the budget shortfall will affect their schools, we were addressing something that virtually no one had contacted me about and that was arguably not a pressing issue,” Holt told the Post.
For days, scores of children, educators, parents and other concerned citizens marched on the crumbling Capitol complex in protest, galvanized by more cuts coming to the state’s stressed public education system, culminating in a protest dubbed “Let’s Fix This,” visitors were greeted with a last-minute dodge.
The legislators took a three-hour break.
For lifelong Oklahoman and award-winning novelist Rilla Askew, the situation was a historic call to action, met with an equally historic rebuke.
“I am really concerned about the deep cuts to education; that’s what got me down there today,” Askew said late last week as the session wound down. “They are driving our state into the ground. That’s the reason I went there.”
The Capitol was awash with youths and adults in red T-shirts, the uniform of the Fix-It movement. However, when the time came for children, parents and educators to meet with their respective representatives, they got a surprise, Askew said.
“When it looked like the people there for the demonstration were going to find their legislator, they canceled the session and told them (the lawmakers) they don’t have to be back until the late afternoon. They just disappeared on us, on the people who came there to demonstrate,” she said.
The House and Senate were not the only places where indifference and even ignorance held sway.
One teacher, Toby Decker, met briefly with Fallin, whom he described as out of touch on one of the more striking pieces of legislation to find its way to her desk: elimination of the EITC, or Earned Income Tax Credit.
The credit is a tax cut specifically for poor working families making less than $25,000 a year. Elimination of the credit has the effect of a tax increase on those families and it passed over the strident pleas of House Minority Leader Scott Inman and others.
Decker said he’d gone to the capitol as part of the education protest. In this case, he visited Fallin’s office to drop off a letter, but managed to catch the governor on her way out.
“I didn’t expect to see her at all,” Decker said.
She was walking with a group of men, a cell phone pressed to her ear. She seemed in a hurry. He spoke up.
“I said, ‘Hi, my name is Toby Decker. I would really like you to consider vetoing the bill the Legislature has passed to eliminate the EITC.’”
Decker said Fallin gave him a blank look for a moment and said, “What is the EITC?”
“I was completely astonished by her question,” Decker said, but explained to Fallin that he was referring to the Earned Income Tax Credit.
“It dawned on her what I was talking about. I was dumbfounded that she didn’t know what I was talking about.”
Decker explained cutting the EITC would hurt his students, many of whom either have parents who are single working parents—or who themselves are working parents. Fallin may have been caught off-guard by the acronym but she shouldn’t have been if she and the Legislature were going to eliminate the credit to essentially raise taxes on the poor.
“That’s a major bill that’s going to affect thousands of Oklahomans and it’s one way that the Republicans have decided to close the budget hole. … I may have caught her off-guard. But I couldn’t believe she didn’t know what I was talking about. … I definitely think that she is out of touch.”
The Times’ editorial called eliminating the tax credit for poor people “deplorable.”
“After years of enacting generous tax cuts for the wealthy and for the powerful oil industry, however, the Oklahoma Legislature was facing falling revenues and resorted to an assortment of questionable cuts to close a $1.3 billion deficit. None is more regressive than penalizing the working poor.”
The editorial noted that the cut will save the state just $29 million, about 2 percent of its overall budget hole. However, it takes away $312 from a family with three or more children and a parent earning $13,850 annually.
Some GOP lawmakers have said the state can’t afford to sacrifice its dwindling revenues in order to help low-income people make ends meet. Sen. Pro Tem Brian Bingman blamed the media for giving the public the wrong impression that lawmakers are only focused on social issues such as abortion and not on the budget.
Bingman’s comments came hours after lawmakers passed a bill that would have made performing an abortion illegal in Oklahoma. It is highly unlikely such a bill, vetoed by Fallin, would survive a constitutional challenge.
Nobody’s ‘Laffing’ now
University of Oklahoma political scientist Keith Gaddie, a longtime Capitol observer, said the Legislature is running up hard against the reality of the rhetoric individual legislators have been espousing throughout their careers.
“These guys are doing what they said they would run to do. Keep taxes low and cut government,” Gaddie said.
“The problem they are going to run into is, you go from five day a week school to a four-day a week school, and then people have to pay for daycare. Grandma gets sick and the hospital has been closed. The hospice is closed. The nursing home has closed. This is an unprecedented event in turning back public services in the state of Oklahoma.”
Gaddie said the Legislature’s recent behavior is “a step backward to a much more dangerous and less safe time.”
When Fallin signed the state’s tax cut bill into law in May 2013, she announced it would pump $237 million additional dollars into the state economy, unleashing “an important tool for job creation and economic development,” according to her release.
The conservative Oklahoma Council for Public Affairs (OCPA), which lobbied hard for the cuts, lauded the Governor’s move. OCPA invoked the predictions of the plan’s architect, Reaganomics proponent Arthur Laffer.
At the time, Michael McNutt was a reporter for The Oklahoman. Now Fallin’s spokesman, McNutt had penned an interview quoting Laffer in 2011: “It’ll lead to a lot faster growth for Oklahoma. You’ve been a very good performing state … but you still have a way to go to be really superb,” Laffer told McNutt. “Your income tax is your primary deterrent to further economic growth.”
Laffer predicted if Oklahoma eliminated its income tax over the next decade, all boats would be lifted.
“You’ll have more sales, you’ll have more people moving in, property values rising,” he said.
But instead of acknowledging the predictions clearly haven’t panned out, OCPA was at the Capitol again last week, stumping against the Medicaid Rebalancing Act. The act would have included a cigarette tax and expansion of the state’s Medicaid program with federal dollars.
Despite the state’s gaping $1.3 billion budget hole and the act’s bland name — designed to avoid describing what the proposal would actually do — lawmakers defeated the act.
“I think the crassness of it surprises me a bit,” Walters said. “Any of us who have served in public office and make political decisions … that deal on Medicaid is a shocker.”
Walters said the state’s defeat of the Medicaid expansion “is going to cost real lives, thousands of lives in Oklahoma because of their failure to fund health care properly.”
“People are going to die as a result of their irresponsible acts. That’s going to get cumulative. As the error of our electoral ways become apparent, people are going to cycle back and elect serious adults who want to represent Oklahomans instead of some crazy ideology.”
A dramatic shift may not happen this election, Gaddie said, but the problems created by the budget shortfall aren’t going away.
The budget hole was closed with the help of accounting tricks such as transferring $200 million in road funding that will be replaced by bond issue funds. That’s the equivalent of using a high-interest credit card to buy groceries and not paying off the balance for years.
Gaddie and other veteran observers of Oklahoma politics say it’s unlikely voters’ anger will subside just because lawmakers have adjourned.
“It’s a one-year fix. We’re going to be back in the same fix next year. They’ve done nothing to create new sources of revenue,” he said. “We’re going to find out, and they are going to be held accountable.”
Frontier Editor in Chief Ziva Branstetter contributed to this story.