SINCE the start of 2011, Oklahoma has gained more than 59,000 jobs, personal income is rising and our unemployment rate is one of the lowest in the nation. State tax collections have been healthy. Oklahoma's “Rainy Day Fund” now holds $577.5 million, the second-largest total in Oklahoma history.
At the same time, the national outlook is less positive. The Congressional Budget Office projects a recession will occur in 2013 if planned federal tax increases and cuts to defense are implemented. Even if those tax increases and budget cuts are avoided, the CBO still projects anemic economic growth and high unemployment.
The ripple effects of the national economy will impact Oklahoma and complicate state budget planning. Unfortunately, slow or negative growth may coincide locally with pent-up need for spending increases in some areas.
The Department of Corrections is seeking a boost of about $67 million, partly to pay for implementation of a criminal justice reform package approved this year. That legislation endorsed nine months of mandatory supervision for all inmates leaving prison; additional probation and parole officers are required to boost public safety.
In addition, the state prison population continues to increase even as Oklahoma prisons are near capacity; the use of private prisons has grown as a result.
Just as important, the department wants to boost worker pay. Agency officials recently noted an Oklahoma correctional officer's starting salary is $11.83 per hour when oil-field jobs provide $25 per hour. Pay raises may be necessary to simply maintain current staffing levels, which many feel are already dangerously low.
The Department of Education is seeking an increase of $289 million. The budget request would increase state aid to public schools to more than $2 billion and fund reforms such as third-grade reading readiness, Advanced Placement teacher training, Achieving Classroom Excellence end-of-instruction remediation, and data-driven evaluation of teacher, student and school performance.