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.
State schools Superintendent Janet Barresi wants to tie funding increases to detailed performance metrics. Schools that show gains in core subjects such as reading and math or close achievement gaps for minority students would be financially rewarded. She also has urged local schools to use a portion of any funding increase to boost teacher pay.
In a tight budget environment, it makes sense to tie funding to performance. What works for individual employees in the private sector can work for state agencies.
The DOC and DOE budget requests are just two of many. Most agencies are expected to ask for increases with some requests more justifiable than others. The tension between limited resources and growing need during troubled economic times demonstrates the necessity for state lawmakers to continue advancing reforms that reduce state expenses.
When Jeb Bush was governor of Florida, he pioneered many of the education reforms that are now undertaken in Oklahoma. Those reforms improved student performance, but Bush acknowledged they also required funding support.
That's one reason Bush also promoted market-driven Medicaid reforms in Florida to improve patient outcomes while driving down costs. It's easier to increase spending in one area when you restrain it elsewhere.
Lawmakers should consider similar efforts in Oklahoma. The need to increase funding in some cases doesn't mean the status quo should reign in all others. Funding increases may be warranted for specific programs, but savings can — and must — be generated in others.