Here are excerpts from recent editorials in Oklahoma newspapers:
The Oklahoman, Feb. 2, 2016
Oklahoma Gov. Fallin deserves credit for ambitious budget proposals
In the days prior to her State of the State speech, Gov. Mary Fallin promised a bold approach to dealing with Oklahoma's significant fiscal challenges. She wasn't kidding.
The budget Fallin submitted to lawmakers Monday, the first day of the 2016 session, includes a plan to fund $3,000 across-the-board teacher pay raises, along with proposals to add money to the Department of Corrections and the Department of Human Services, and fill the pending $900 million funding gap without touching the state's Rainy Day Fund or using any one-time revenue.
"We can do it," she said more than once. Crafting a budget that reflects her desires "will require hard work and important votes," Fallin said. "But it will be the right thing to do for future generations of Oklahomans."
The current generation of Oklahomans stands to benefit from the governor's call for sentencing reform, something that is long overdue and, if approved, will help reduce the state's prison population and give many offenders a better chance of making lives for themselves after incarceration.
Fallin wants to give district attorneys discretion to file any first drug offense as a misdemeanor. She then wants to see the mandatory minimum sentences reduced for first, second and third felony offenses. She also calls for bumping to $1,000 from $500 the cutoff for property crimes to be considered felonies.
"We just can't keep doing what we've been doing. It's not working," Fallin said. She's absolutely right about that.
Her proposed budget includes an additional $11.3 million to fully fund the DHS's plan to upgrade its foster care system, a necessary investment because the state must comply with the guidelines of a federal lawsuit settlement.
DHS is one of seven entities that will be cut by 3 percent overall, instead of 6 percent as is the case for most other state agencies. The others that would, thankfully, feel less of a pinch are the Health Department, the Oklahoma Health Care Authority, the state mental health agency, the Department of Public Safety, the Office of Juvenile Affairs and the Oklahoma School of Science and Math.
Fallin's teacher pay raises would come from $178 million in new money, and thus would negate the need to increase the sales tax, as has been proposed by University of Oklahoma President David Boren and others.
The governor wants to overhaul the state's budgeting process. She plans to capture $910 million in recurring revenues, from such areas as agency revolving funds that replenish annually. She also supports an increase in the tobacco tax, which would raise $181 million annually.
She also wants to modernize Oklahoma's sales tax exemptions and use tax exemptions, by eliminating some exemptions and perhaps applying sales tax to new categories. Restructuring ultimately could provide the opportunity to reduce the state sales tax rate, Fallin said.
The governor also broached the "C'' word — consolidation. She wants to put the administrative costs of underperforming dependent school districts (those with students in kindergarten through eighth grade) into existing pre-K through 12th-grade districts. That emphasis is important, because arguments tend to get heated and skewed when consolidation of any kind is mentioned.
Any governor's budget proposal can amount to wishful thinking. Without question, Fallin's for this year is optimistic. Many details remain to be worked out. Yet Fallin is to be commended for arguing in these very challenging economic times that real changes are needed in the way the state conducts its business.
The Journal Record, Feb. 1, 2016
We can't afford more savings
It's time for the reckoning.
Legislators have been telling Oklahomans that more business incentives and tax cuts would create jobs and bolster the economy. That if only government can be smaller, Oklahomans would have more money to spend, a better job and a nice, thick slice of the American dream.
That was an easy sell when booming oil prices were propping up the state's economy. Tax breaks for businesses more than doubled between 2010 and 2014, taking an estimated $760 million from state coffers. The income tax cuts enacted since 2005, lowering the top rate from 6.65 percent to 5 percent, have taken an estimated $1 billion per year away from the state budget.
On June 20, 2014, West Texas Intermediate crude sold for $107.95 per barrel. At that price, Oklahoma drillers were starting more wells and hiring people to do the work. Gross production tax revenue was flowing despite numerous incentives, and that effectively masked the ever-deepening hole being created by the Legislature.
On Monday, West Texas Intermediate crude was selling for $31.95 in midday trading. The oil and gas companies that hedged well have been able to keep the wolf from the door, but as those hedges run their course, employers are pushed to increasingly perilous positions. And Oklahomans are left with the bare truth of what "right-sizing" government really means.
It means fewer jobs. Oklahoma's population grew more than 3.4 percent between 2009 and 2014, but the state, excluding higher education, cut 3,000 jobs in that same period. Health and Human Services lost 1,614 employees, so we're doing a lot less for Oklahoma's most vulnerable: the old, the young and the sick. The Department of Corrections lost 783 jobs in that time frame, adding to the problems of a system woefully understaffed at about 65 percent while prisons exceed inmate capacity. The Department of Education is down 153 employees, which is a cut of more than one-third.
At last week's Chamber of Commerce legislative breakfast, state Senate Pro Tempore Brian Bingman opened a discussion on this year's $900 million gap by calling it "a great opportunity for the state of Oklahoma." What he meant was, "We can cut even more. We can have fewer teachers, fewer doctors, fewer corrections officers."
That failed approach is particularly apparent when the Legislature can't hide behind an oil boom. As legislators reconvene this week they must take one principle to heart: Oklahoma can't afford to save any more money.
Tulsa World, Feb. 2, 2016
The federal prison problem — Jonah has swallowed the whale
A one-size-fits-all sentencing policy has swelled the federal prison population to historic highs and is not giving taxpayers a good return on investment in terms of safer communities, reduced costs or better inmate outcomes.
That's the conclusion reached by the Charles Colson Task Force on Federal Corrections, headed by former Oklahoma U.S. Rep. J.C. Watts.
More nonviolent offenders ought to be steered toward probation and away from prison, a strategy that could save $5 billion in coming years, the task force says.
The findings are nearly identical to those reached by a number of states that have used smart-on-crime strategies, including community treatment and supervision, to cut costs and reduce recidivism.
The White House and Department of Justice have encouraged changes in how defendants are prosecuted and sentenced, but a bipartisan congressional effort to reduce the federal prison population has stalled. Most of the 195,893 federal inmates are nonviolent drug violators.
Harsh mandatory minimum sentences for lower-level drug criminals have proved counterproductive and have driven up prison numbers and costs.
Federal offenders often emerge from prison with few skills or behavior changes that would aid in a successful reintegration into the community. Root causes of why offenders broke the law — poverty, addiction and mental health issues — too often go unaddressed.
A long list of conservatives, including the Koch brothers, tax-opponent Grover Norquist and former U.S. House leader Newt Gingrich, have led the charge to bring more rationality to sentencing and corrections spending. The feds ought to look at what's being done in states that safely reduced their prison populations.
Without a change, Jonah — aka the taxpayers — will continue to swallow the whale, with not much to show for the experience.