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.
State colleges want a $97 million increase. From 2007 to 2012, state appropriations have declined as a percentage of the higher education budget, falling from 50 percent to 39 percent. The recession played a role, of course, but Chancellor Glen Johnson also attributes the decline to the growth of health care funding and prison needs, which diverted taxpayer dollars.
Road funding remains crucial to continue replacement of dilapidated bridges and repair of roads. The Department of Human Services is requesting $80 million more than last year, including $46 million to accelerate reforms enacted as the result of settling a class-action lawsuit over state oversight of abused children. At the end of the agency's five-year reform plan, state funding for DHS is expected to increase by nearly $100 million a year.
At the same time, the state Capitol continues to crumble. A new building is needed for the Office of the Medical Examiner. Capitol repair is expected to require at least $160 million; the medical examiner's office will cost $38.5 million.
Oklahomans are justifiably proud that the state has a balanced budget requirement. It avoids the irresponsible deficit spending of the federal government. But balancing the budget requires lawmakers to make hard choices. To keep the cost of government from ultimately imposing a greater tax burden on working Oklahomans, lawmakers will have to say “no” to even many worthy proposals.