DEBATE centering on state revenues and tax cuts has been hard to miss this year, but fiscal matters at the city and county levels have mostly flown under the radar.
The state budget is stabilizing after years of cutbacks. Proposed budgets for Oklahoma City and Oklahoma County in the fiscal year that begins July 1 show signs of emerging prosperity. While we celebrate that prosperity, let's not lose sight of the fact that the government sector didn't create better times.
Oklahoma City's budget, heavily dependent on sales tax revenue, will be ample enough to support a projected 85 new jobs. Oklahoma County Treasurer Butch Freeman says the fiscal 2013 budget outlook is “healthier than I've seen it since I've been in Oklahoma County” — a span that started in 1993.
The perception is that county governments — but not city governments — survived the recession fairly comfortably. This isn't necessarily true. County Commissioner Ray Vaughn said the county has had 3 percent to 8 percent less money to work with each year for the past several years.
Oklahoma County is nearly alone among the state's counties in not assessing a sales tax. This would change if voters approve a measure for a new jail at an election that could be quite visible on the radar a year from now.
Statewide, sales taxes collected by the state, city and county governments were up 7.1 percent in April from the comparable month of 2011. Oklahoma City is using its gains to fashion a proposed budget of $952 million, up from $920 million in the current fiscal year. For Oklahoma County, improving conditions were enough to warrant employee pay raises. State employees appear to have no prospects for a raise.
Unlike city governments, county governments are dependent on property tax revenues. A referendum slated for the November ballot would cap increases in valuations for ad valorem assessments to 3 percent a year. The current cap is 5 percent. This would help taxpayers but could limit county government growth. A sales tax for the jail is a separate issue.
The property tax cap measure, which would apply statewide, will be an easier sell than the Oklahoma County-only jail sales tax. Meantime, it's been harder than we thought to sell a statewide personal income tax reduction. Tax cutters have met fierce resistance from special interest groups that benefit from tax credits and from average taxpayers who don't want to cede a beloved credit or deduction in exchange for a lower tax rate.
For state, county and city officials, making a budget during times when the economy is improving may be more pleasant than it is during downturns, but it's no easier. Pent-up demand for hiring, pay raises and capital expenditures will fill the radar screen at all levels of government. A limited supply of cash remains, however.
Still, the skies are getting bluer for government employees who have gone without raises for years. Let's all remember that government revenue gains are mostly due to the hard work of and spending by employees in the private sector. As they go, so goes the government.