The head of the state’s association of public employees wouldn’t rule out a strike on Thursday while talking about his workers request for a pay raise.
Describing employees as “angry” and “fed up”, Sterling Zearley, Executive Director of the Oklahoma Public Employees’ Association, expressed frustration with lawmakers who have gone into recess a mere three days into the state’s special session, leaving core state agencies waiting to see if more cuts will be coming their way.
Legislators had been called back to the capitol tasked with finding $215 million in revenue after the state supreme court struck down a proposed tax on cigarettes. Republicans and Democrats not any closer to finding common ground, despite months of supposed negotiations are once again looking to shrink state services to squeeze out dollars.
“It's a cop-out for legislators to say we can cut-cut-cut,” Zearley said. “I'm, not saying there's not inefficiencies in state government and we all should be looking for those, but there's not $5-600 million worth of state inefficiencies.”
Zearley said his employees are also looking for a raise; $7500 over the next three years. It’s unclear where the state would be able to find the money for raises with legislators still unable to drum up funds for long promised teacher pay raises but Zearley is holding out hope. He alluded to the raise essentially paying for itself by reducing the state’s 20 percent turnover rate. According to OPEA, costs associated with turnover costs tax payers $120 million every year.
In a tweet Governor Mary Fallin, seemed to echo concerns about cuts to agencies, more than 668-million dollars have been cut from core state agencies since 2009.
"We should always be looking for ways to make government more efficient,” she wrote. “[B]ut in the past 8 years we have made draconian cuts to many state agencies." Fallin was in office with veto power over the same time frame."
One of the agencies looking at potential cuts is the Department of Health. Already one of the more heavily slashed budgets the OSDH is examining ways to cut more. According to an internal memo obtained by News9, department officials are planning to furlough employees making more than $35,000 and offer voluntary buyouts for 150 to 200 positions. On Thursday, the agency also asked for an audit from the state to identify any outstanding inefficiencies.
“The caseloads are not going to go away,” Zearley said about health department workers. “They inspect tattoo parlors, they inspect nursing homes, they inspect our restaurants, they provide plans in case we have an infectious disease outbreak. This is a serious health issue not just for that area, but the State of Oklahoma.”
After being asked multiple times Zearley wouldn't rule out a strike of state employees, admitting it would be difficult for workers without bargaining rights but nonetheless a statement that is sure to get the attention of those at the capitol.