Each year, Oklahoma’s legislative session culminates with a state budget bill. The budget isn’t just numbers. It’s a demonstration of our values and a key component of our prosperity. Spending taxpayer dollars should never be taken lightly, but neither should our responsibility to educate our children, manage our common resources and look out for the least among us.
Next year’s budget comes at a time when, by any reasonable account, Oklahoma’s core services have shrunk for several years. We cut teacher jobs, furloughed public safety officers and reduced the number of mental health beds. Many state employees have gone without a raise since 2006; agencies are struggling to find enough workers at such low levels of pay.
At the same time, Oklahoma’s economy has mostly emerged from the recession. We’ve added 220,000 residents since 2006. By these factors, state revenue should be meeting and exceeding past years. Yet after inflation, next year’s budget is more than $600 million below the pre-recession peak. The large income tax cuts phased in from 2006 to 2012 are an obvious culprit, and with even more tax cuts scheduled for 2015 and 2016, support for public services will likely shrink even further.
Another factor is the Legislature’s refusal to take out bonds. Despite historically low interest rates, lawmakers took nearly $100 million from this year’s budget for state building renovation and IT consolidation. Paying these capital expenditures up front and all at once is bad financial management. It comes at the expense of investments in education and public safety, and it goes against how the vast majority of businesses and families manage their own budgets. Anyone who’s ever taken out a car loan or a home mortgage should realize this.
The budget does address some serious needs. A $60 million boost in revenue going to the ROADS (Rebuilding Oklahoma Access and Driver Safety) fund will help repair our crumbling highways. A $44 million investment in the Department of Human Services will help fix our beleaguered child welfare system. An extra $17 million for mental health and substance abuse treatment will help restore some of the highly needed services that have been cut in recent years.
But we should notice what these investments have in common. They’re attempts to fix problems created by years of chronic underfunding. Rather than setting a bold course for Oklahoma’s future, we’re playing catch-up just to repair what we’ve allowed to fall apart.
The need to address these problems with a constrained revenue pie also means the slice going to education has reached a new low. The funding formula that covers schools’ most basic budget needs is down more than $200 million from six years ago, even as schools are tasked with educating 30,000 more children.
By continuing to underfund education, public safety and other core public services that facilitate the private sector, we risk serious damage to Oklahoma’s economic growth and a worse future for our children.
Perry is a policy analyst at Oklahoma Policy Institute ( www.okpolicy.org).
Next year’s budget comes at a time when, by any reasonable account, Oklahoma’s core services have shrunk for several years.