CORRECTION: In “Many budget challenges in store for lawmakers” a statement on state funding for Edmond Public Schools was misattributed to school board member Lee Ann Kuhlman. The references to state funding were made by the district’s chief financial officer and thus the conclusion we drew from the remarks — that Kuhlman favors restoration of 2000-2001 state funding levels — was also in error. (Information provided by Owen Canfield, 11/15/2013)
WITH only three months remaining before the next session of the Legislature, state agencies are unveiling their budget requests.
The Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education want $1.065 billion for colleges, an increase of $76.3 million. Regent Toney Stricklin, of Lawton, called the 7.7 percent increase “modest.” The state Board of Education has requested $2.5 billion for K-12 schools, an increase of $174.9 million. The Department of Corrections, which got no additional funds this year, is asking for a $31.5 million increase next year — a reasonable request given rising inmate numbers and dangerously low staffing levels at often-deteriorating facilities.
Smaller agencies are also requesting more. The Oklahoma National Guard wants $16.9 million next year, an increase of $5.2 million. The list goes on and on.
These requests aren't necessarily frivolous, but when combined they quickly exceed all reasonably anticipated growth in state tax collections. That's a perennial problem. What may be different this year is that policymakers could face an outright budget shortfall.
At a recent meeting of the Tulsa Regional Chamber, Senate President Pro Tem Brian Bingman, R-Sapulpa, warned that such an outcome was possible this year. General Revenue Fund collections for the first quarter were lower than last year and were $113.8 million, or 8.3 percent, below the official estimate upon which the current state budget is based. That's just a snapshot, but collections will have to significantly exceed projections in the months ahead to make up that lost ground.
Bingman isn't alone in warning about potential budget challenges. Preston Doerflinger, state secretary of finance, administration and information technology, recently noted that Gov. Mary Fallin's administration has warned agencies “not to anticipate a big pot of growth revenue money this year.” Agencies “should continue to keep their belts tight, find efficiencies and prepare for potentially flat budgets,” Doerflinger said. Clark Jolley, R-Edmond, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, has been equally candid: “I predict every dollar will be precious.”
Meeting looming budget challenges isn't made easier when spending advocates use sleight-of-hand accounting to make their case to the public. Edmond School Board member Lee Ann Kuhlman recently noted that state dollars accounted for 59.1 percent of her district's 2000-01 funding, but just 42 percent this year.
Edmond's growing local property tax base accounts for much of that shift, yet Kuhlman clearly wants us to believe the state could ramp up education spending back to the 59.1 percent level. She didn't acknowledge that massive cuts to other state programs or a significant tax increase would be required to achieve that goal.
For example, in the 2000 state budget year, 12.13 percent of Oklahoma's population was on Medicaid. By 2012, that figure reached 26.57 percent. From the 2001 budget year to 2012, state spending on Medicaid increased by 217 percent. The program's growth undeniably diverted money from other needs, like schools. To reverse the trend could therefore involve enriching schools at the expense of welfare recipients.
If current trends continue, spending advocates must realize it may not be enough to simply declare that a favorite cause warrants increased state appropriations. This time, advocates may have to also argue for cutting other programs in the process.