Balancing the budget means Oklahoma lawmakers have many tough decisions

The Oklahoman Editorial Published: April 5, 2013

MOST government programs begin with good intentions. Advocates can passionately make a case for greater funding in any number of areas. These abstract arguments are compelling — until they crash upon the rocky shoals of fiscal reality.

The demand for government spending in Oklahoma continues to outpace the ability of taxpayers to fund programs. Restraint is necessary. Cuts to some programs may be unavoidable if lawmakers wish to boost funding for others.

Legislation creating a special account to fund cost-of-living adjustments (COLAs) for state pension beneficiaries is an example.

Although the bill is advancing, increased benefit payments are unlikely because the cost is far more than the state can afford. A 2 percent COLA increase for all retirees would cost $325 million. Lawmakers have “only” $213 million more than a year ago. Therefore, a COLA isn't possible without cutting other programs, even if no other spending needs existed. And those needs do exist.

For the first eight months of the fiscal year, the Department of Corrections has a deficit of $13.4 million, much of it driven by inmate growth. The number of staff positions the agency can afford to fill is far below the number authorized, leading to double shifts and increased danger for correctional officers. The agency wants a budget increase of nearly $67 million and a supplemental appropriation of nearly $6.4 million to cover the cost of unfunded, mandated increases to private contractors.

The state Department of Education wants a $289 million increase to pay for implementing reforms and to allow local districts to boost teacher pay, as well as restore many cuts made during the recession. So if lawmakers considered authorizing a COLA for state retirees, it would likely come at the expense of K-12 spending.

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