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More openness sought in Oklahoma's budget process

Oklahoma legislative leaders say there is room for improvement. The state's budget now is negotiated in secret by leaders with the House, Senate and the governor's office, leaving most lawmakers and citizens in the dark.
BY MICHAEL MCNUTT Published: August 20, 2012

The way legislators craft the state's budget, which has evolved into secret meetings involving only a handful of key fiscal negotiators, should be more open so citizens and other lawmakers have a better understanding what's in the money bill, legislative leaders say.

“There is room for improvement as far as the budget process is concerned,” House Speaker Kris Steele said. “The trick is going to be to make sure that all the entities involved — the House, the Senate and the governor's office — are willing to collectively reform and bring about more transparency.”

“We can always be more open in the process,” said Senate President Pro Tem Brian Bingman. “We're certainly open to suggestions and always looking at better ways to ... do business.

“It's a very large budget and it's hard to micromanage every little expenditure,” said Bingman, R-Sapulpa. “We try to be open and we don't try to hide anything. It comes down to a point that you've got to get the House, Senate and the governor's office all in agreement.”

Opening up budget talks also would reduce citizens finding surprise allocations to various groups that aren't listed in this fiscal year's 49-page general appropriations bill that lists the funding levels for each state agency.

But the listing is just lump sums, and specific allocations aren't spelled out in the document.

Spending questioned

A conservative think tank is questioning the necessity of allocating about $2.1 million from the state's $6.8 billion budget for this fiscal year, which began July 1.

Jonathan Small, fiscal policy director for the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, said the allocations are not for essential services and questioned whether they should receive any state funds. Small's group earlier this year pointed out about $2 billion in potential savings in state government expenditures over the next three years; some of those proposals, such as defunding state appropriations to the Oklahoma Educational Television Authority and charging admission at state parks were considered and rejected by lawmakers.

“Definitely there is the issue of spending on noncore functions which wasn't addressed, but what we've seen which is even a greater concern is the lack of transparency and a broken budget process,” Small said. “It's one thing to spend money on things that don't appear to be our core services; it's another thing when individual lawmakers are directing those sums and many times lawmakers don't even have an idea of what they're voting on.”

David Blatt, director of the Oklahoma Policy Institute which analyzes state finances, said the budget process “definitely can and should be more open.”

“Particularly in recent years, the only appropriation information is a lump sum in a general appropriations bill,” said Blatt, whose organization supports adequate, fair and fiscally responsible funding of public services. “Previously, there used to be at least agency-specific budget bills which often didn't provide full information but at least provided some information on line item appropriations the Legislature was directing.

“It's very hard for anybody to find out what money is intended for and you do end up having to piece together information from spreadsheets that get circulated or even less transparent means,” he said. “If there's legislative direction, then the Legislature should spell that out in bills that go through and get passed.”

The state Agriculture, Food and Forestry Department received $27.6 million from legislators, a $2 million bump over last year, but that $2 million is to go to the Oklahoma Youth Expo junior livestock show in Oklahoma City. The state Tourism and Recreation Department was told that of its $21.8 million budget, $40,000 should be passed through to the Jenks Aquarium and $25,000 should be given to each the Red Earth Festival in Oklahoma City and to the Oklahoma Summer Arts Institute at Quartz Mountain.

Small said the events receiving the money may be worthwhile, but the discussion on why they received the money should have been held in the open.

“What we're finding is when we talk to citizens is that they're surprised about the funds that are going to those things and they don't see those areas as a core function of government,” he said. “It's not the issue of the entity that's involved or what they might bring or not bring to the community, again it's just the process and the way things are done.”

Steele, R-Shawnee, said he and Rep. Earl Sears, chairman of the House Appropriations and Budget Committee, provided more details to House GOP members during caucus meetings. Steele said he talked with House Democratic leaders and Sears, R-Bartlesville, also talked to members of the Democratic House caucus.

“Before any votes were taken, even in committee, we would give that information to our caucus,” Steele said. “They would be hard pressed to say that they didn't have the adequate information when it came time to vote if they participated in the caucus meetings and the committee meetings.”

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