IMAGINE taking a trip to the store to buy groceries with two children. The “I wants” for a purchase other than food are much easier to endure when the answer is just a flat no, and when the children know in advance that the answer will be no.
The “I wants” get trickier when the outing is for the purpose of buying a necessary item for one child but not the other. Do you give in to the cries for fairness and how much the second child needs something, too, just to quiet the noise?
We imagine this scenario will play out at the state Capitol this year. It will take some pretty deft “parenting” on the part of lawmakers to balance wants and needs and winners and losers.
With state revenue on the uptick, the Legislature won't have to render a flat-out no to every agency that comes through the door asking for more money. Neither can it say yes to every request. Priority-setting is paramount, and it pits not only one agency against another but the present against the future.
Take, for example, this year's budget request from the Oklahoma Center for the Advancement of Science and Technology. The agency is asking for $43.1 million, a whopping increase from this year's $17.8 million appropriation.
OCAST's argument — and it's a good one — is that for every state dollar allocated to the agency, $20 more is returned to the state in private and federal investments. Unlike other state agencies, the focus isn't so much on meeting day-to-day needs and demands as it is building for the future.
OCAST invests in promising research and business prospects with a particular eye on science and technology. The challenge for lawmakers has always been maintaining the balance between funding the day-to-day services people need while having enough vision to plan for a future that we can't yet even imagine with our list of “I wants.” OCAST is planted firmly in the visionary world trying to turn dreams into reality. But it can only fund about half of the promising projects because of the tough state budget climate.
The state's pending settlement over child welfare issues will certainly cost the state money. It can no longer ignore the high caseloads of child welfare workers — a problem that will require money to fix. Common education wants back the money it lost last year, including enough to fund the stipends promised to teachers if they achieved national certification.
The Department of Corrections has chronic funding issues tied in part to an expensive crime-and-punishment mentality that favors jail time for those who might be better served in alternative courts or community-based programs. The state's mental health and substance abuse department wants money for such alternatives.
How many times have parents found themselves thinking or saying, “This hurts me more than it hurts you”? No doubt the “nos” are going to hurt this year as others hear “yes.” These are hard choices.
It took the Legislature a long time to embrace the wisdom of planning for the future as a way to grow the state and help it prepare for meager times — a Rainy Day Fund of sorts that's an investment rather than a savings account. Lawmakers shouldn't totally abandon that thinking, even if it means worthy agencies like OCAST get less than they seek.