CHRISTMAS is past, but the wish lists continue to be made. With visions of the 2013 legislative session dancing in our heads, wish lists for public policy are forming.
State Treasurer Ken Miller has such a list. Before the clatter arises just ahead of the session, and before common sense moves to the back of a sleigh driven by partisanship, let's train our wondering eyes on these solid conservative ideas:
Tighten the spending limit. The Republicans who control state government are known for being Grinchy in their appropriations, particularly for public education. But the state constitution (unlike the federal version) requires a balanced budget. Appropriation increases are limited to no more than 12 percent over the previous year, adjusted for inflation. Miller believes the cap should be 6 percent.
Designate surplus funds. A portion of budget surpluses or one-time sources of funds, Miller says, should go to debt repayment rather than ongoing needs such as education and roads. The debt repayment strategy would include pension obligations. Unfunded public pension liabilities are the Achilles' heel in a state known for fiscal conservatism.
Maintain assets. Miller wants a “responsible” bond package for Oklahoma's long-term capital needs. This would include repairs for a crumbling Capitol complex (and not just the Capitol building itself) and new facilities for the state Medical Examiner's Office. Miller's fellow Republicans have been cool to the idea of bond issues; anti-bond GOP lawmakers have found allies in the shrinking Democratic minority.
Oklahoma's long-term debt is so low that it could be retired in fewer than 25 years, less than the time many Oklahomans have left on their home mortgages. While the national debt grows by $6.6 billion per day, Oklahoma's state-supported debt totals less than $2 billion. The state could borrow as much as $300 million for new bond issues without affecting Oklahoma's credit rating.
Capital needs are going unmet because of “conservative” resistance to bond issues, some of it tied to Washington's fiscal insanity. Along with Miller, we believe it's anything but conservative to ignore pressing needs for infrastructure.
Modernize pensions. Miller wants to offer a portable pension benefit option for future state employees, “to meet the needs of a modern workforce.” Adding this option is fiscally responsible and would bring Oklahoma in line with the private sector, federal government and a number of other states. Other pension tweaks are vital as well.
In his Dec. 20 newsletter, and in remarks made recently to The Oklahoman's editorial board, Miller laid out a wish list that aligns well with conservative governance. The treasurer's plea for caution on income tax cuts last year made him appear relatively moderate, but true conservatives believe in good stewardship as well as low taxes and spending restrictions.
In this sense, Miller is a true conservative. By his own admission, his wish list is “probably a bit ambitious.” But, he adds, “Oklahomans have been much more nice than naughty and giving them a more fiscally responsible government can't be nearly as hard as trying to get two front teeth.”
Getting Father Christmas in Washington to be a good fiscal steward is like pulling teeth. But Oklahoma doesn't have to follow that example. And it would not be doing so by issuing bonds.
True conservative leadership recognizes that some debt is as sweet as a candy cane and that fiscal pragmatism is always cleaner than rigid lumps of partisan coal.