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What the $250,000!?!

June 14, 2016

I struggle to understand some of life’s bigger mysteries. Is Area 51 real? Where do crop circles come from? Why does anyone care what the Kardashians (or any other of the pseudo-celebrities on television do?

Yesterday, the Oklahoman presented us with another:

A state agency that manages tobacco settlement money has created a $250,000-a-year job and offered it to someone whose name was not disclosed.

By comparison, the governor of Oklahoma makes $147,000 per year.

Some have questioned the high salary for the Tobacco Settlement Endowment Trust’s new chief executive officer, a position created at a time when many state departments are facing severe budget cuts.

Tracey Strader, 57, who now leads the trust as executive director, earns $120,000 a year and will stay on with the agency, which has 22 employees.

David Blatt, a spokesman for the Oklahoma Policy Institute, said it’s unusual to create a $250,000 position for an agency with so few employees, while other, much larger parts of state government, affecting millions of Oklahomans, are run by executives earning much less.

The trust has more than $1 billion in its endowment, funded by settlement money from big tobacco companies. Interest from the settlement is spent by the trust to discourage smoking and boost public health.

“Certainly by the standards of state government a salary this big is almost unprecedented,” Blatt said. “It seems hard to know why they would be willing to double the salary of the existing director and why the name hasn’t been revealed.”

Hey, it’s good work, if you can get it! Please understand that this position will not cost the state anything. As TSET is self-funding at this point, none of this money could have been used to offset other deficits in our budget. Its purposes are very specific. According to their website, they can do five things:

Oklahoma’s Constitution was amended by a vote of the people, to place a portion of each year’s tobacco settlement payments into an endowment trust fund, to create a five-member Board of Investors to oversee the investment of the trust funds, and to create a seven-member Board of Directors to direct the earnings from the trust to fund programs in the following five areas:

1. Clinical and basic research and treatment efforts in Oklahoma for the purpose of enhancing efforts to prevent and combat cancer and other tobacco-related diseases,

2.Cost-effective tobacco prevention and cessation programs,

3.Programs designed to maintain or improve the health of Oklahomans or to enhance the provision of health care services to Oklahomans, with particular emphasis on such programs for children,

4. Programs and services for the benefit of the children of Oklahoma, with particular emphasis on common and higher education, before- and after-school programs, substance abuse prevention and treatment programs and services designed to improve the health and quality of life of children,

5. Programs designed to enhance the health and well-being of senior adults.

Yes, the salary is high and unprecedented. Yes, selecting someone for the post and not announcing the name is intriguing. On its face, this is just the kind of government waste and overreach that the right-wing watchdogs at a particular organization would find outrageous. However, as the Oklahoman article continues, we see this isn’t the case:

Jonathan Small, president of the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, said his organization has been encouraging the trust to use some of its resources directly to help people access health care.

“We believe they should be more proactive in shoring up rural primary care needs, critical access needs, as opposed to advertising and funding grants,” he said.

Small said that if the new chief executive officer is successful in steering the agency in the direction of helping the state pay for public health care, he or she could be worth a big salary.

I did some research. Small typically doesn’t like seeing big government salaries. Nor does he generally think the government is effective at providing education. As he wrote last week in the Journal Record:

Well, the data suggests some Oklahoma public schools are not very efficiently operated. The sheer number of individual school districts, more than 500, means that we’re spending a lot on superintendents who in some cases preside over districts with fewer than 100 students.

That’s not surpising. The OCPA and their strongest adherents in the legislature often complain about the cost of school administration. This is just what we expect.

What Small wrote about cigarette use back in March, however, seems to really contradict his new-found hope:

Government at its core is force, often by burdensome taxation. Our failed criminal justice policy demonstrates that using the force of government to change non-violent moral behavior leads to hurting Oklahomans. Over and over states have demonstrated that cigarette tax increases marginally affect smoking, but significantly decrease the purchasing power for other necessities, including for the most vulnerable smokers and their families.

Our economy is struggling. We can’t afford tax policy that artificially deters Oklahoma consumers from Oklahoma businesses.

If we truly care about Oklahomans who smoke and their families, particularly the most vulnerable, we will help them make wise choices, not use the force of government to hammer them and their families for non-violent moral behavior.

His points are about proposals to increase the cigarette tax. The last sentence, though, shows his true feelings on the force of government. Do you know who else has this force? TSET. And now we know who will be leading them forward:

The Tobacco Settlement Endowment Trust announced Tuesday Patrice Douglas has accepted a newly created $250,000-a-year job heading up the state agency.

Douglas is a former Oklahoma Corporation Commissioner, a former Edmond mayor and an unsuccessful Republican candidate for the U.S. House.

The announcement came a week after the trust stirred public concern with word that it was starting a lucrative new position and had offered it to an undisclosed person at a time when most state agencies are facing severe budget cutbacks.

lloyd bridges

I don’t know enough about Douglas to say whether she was a good choice or not. Let’s say she is. And let’s say that under a couple of years of her leadership, smoking decreases significantly and the state saves money in direct and indirect health-care costs.

That still doesn’t justify the salary. Saving money is the expectation for leaders of public agencies. It doesn’t merit this high of a salary for this small of an agency. It’s a slap in the face to everybody else who is dealing with brutal budget cuts in Oklahoma. And yes, I know I’m a superintendent and part of what some would consider to be the problem. That’s an altogether separate conversation.

Oklahoma keeps demoralizing its citizens. This won’t help.

 

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  1. June 14, 2016 at 11:52 pm

    This government is so obviously corrupt I cannot understand why the citizens of Oklahoma aren’t buying pitchforks and lanterns

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