Even as the economy recovers, it’s become increasingly apparent that there is no end in sight to Oklahoma’s budget woes. Oklahoma has seen three straight years of budget cuts, and according to one House leader, we may be in for a fourth. At best, this year’s budget will stay flat, which means we can accomplish less due to inflation, reductions in federal assistance, and continued deterioration of equipment and infrastructure that we can’t afford to fix. It also means the damage caused by previous cuts will continue unchecked.

We provided overviews on previous rounds of budget cuts here, here, and here. This is an update on a few more of the ways we’re falling behind in public safety, child welfare, education, health, and other areas:

Public Safety

  • The number of state troopers on Oklahoma highways is at its lowest level in 22 years. Without funds to train new troopers, the problem is likely to get worse because more than 1/4th of existing troopers are already eligible for retirement.
  • The Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation has frozen hiring with 35 vacant jobs, and Director Stan Florence said further cuts would lead to furloughs. Inadequate staff has forced the agency to reduce investigations of the theft of equipment from oil and gas fields and curtail other investigative work.
  • Department of Corrections Director Justin Jones said almost $78.6 million has been cut from his agency’s budget since 2010, and he needs at least $31 million restored for vital infrastructure, including new electronic locks at four prisons. “These have to be done,” he said. “When we lock the doors, there are ways to get out. These are life-safety issues.”
  • Reaccreditation of the Medical Examiner’s Office cannot be accomplished with its current “decrepit” facility. The office lost its accreditation with the National Association of Medical Examiners in 2009 after 18 consecutive years of accreditation. The legislature has yet to provide the needed funding for a new building.

Child Welfare

  • Oklahoma has decreased child-welfare spending since 2006, going from $248.4 million to $244.2 million. Even before these cuts, Oklahoma spent much less per child than other states with similar child population sizes. In 2006, Oklahoma spent $270 per child, compared to Iowa at $488 per child, Oregon at $468, and Kentucky at $408.
  • Overcrowded state children’s shelters are in violation of state law. Children must be removed from homes when their safety is in imminent danger, but Oklahoma doesn’t have enough foster homes to place them. The Oklahoma City shelter exceeded the capacity allowed by the fire marshal on 48 days from October through December.
  • National child welfare experts expressed shock that Oklahoma is housing infants in group shelters. “It’s because a fundamental task for those very young children, particularly children ages 6 months to 3 years, is to attach to one particular caregiver and that’s how they learn,” said Carole Shauffer, senior director of strategic initiatives for the Youth Law Center in San Francisco. “It’s how they learn language. It’s how they learn to rely on people … So, if they have constantly changing caregivers, which is what happens in a shelter, they cannot attach to any one of them because they are not there long enough.”
  • With a shortage of foster homes and severe overcrowding in shelters, DHS was pressured to leave many more children with their families. In several highly publicized cases, this resulted in children dying or experiencing severe abuse and neglect. DHS currently pays foster parents about $200 a month less than the minimum monthly rates recommended by the Children’s Rights child advocacy group and the National Foster Parent Association.

Education

Health

  • The Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services has taken a $36.6 million funding cut over the last three years, including drops in state appropriations, reduced federal block grant awards, and higher maintenance costs that have gone unfunded. Mental illness is the third leading cause of chronic disease in the state, and ODMHSAS has reported that 70 percent of those in need are not receiving treatment.
  • Oklahoma’s youth suicide rate is 31 percent higher than the national rate, and cuts in mental health services have resulted in a dramatic increase in calls to Oklahoma’s suicide hotline.
  • About 6,400 Oklahomans are on a waiting list to obtain services for families caring for physically and developmentally disabled people in their homes. The waiting list has grown significantly as state institutions have been closed. It can take up to 10 years to get moved off the list. “I had two sons on the waiting list, but one died before he could be moved off the list,” said one mother.

 Other Gaps

  • The state owes an estimated $36 million to more than 600 cities, counties, electrical cooperatives, state agencies, fire districts, schools and Indian tribes for its share of costs associated with 21 natural disasters dating back to 2007. The emergency fund hasn’t had any state appropriations since 2008 and currently has a balance of just $944. Governor Fallin said that “It is not fair for the state of Oklahoma to ignore its obligations when towns and cities are struggling to find the money to pay for firefighters, police and basic services.”
  • State workers have not received a pay increase in 6 years. There are about 3,000 fewer state workers now than there were three years ago, not including public school teachers, which have also decreased significantly. Rising costs due to inflation, higher gas prices, and other expenses imposes hardships on state workers and reduces the state’s ability to keep effective and experienced employees, which in turn reduces the effectiveness of all public services.

The continuing damage from underfunded public services is making Oklahoma less safe, less healthy, and less prosperous. In this context, we should be highly skeptical of claims that Oklahoma has any extra money lying around to be handed out in tax cuts.

Certainly there are areas where we can reduce unnecessary spending, but there are just as many obvious, underfunded core needs where those savings should be directed. It’s time to get our priorities straight and stop shoving tax cuts to the front of the line.