At the state Capitol, lawmakers remain deadlocked over how to find enough revenue to avoid crippling budget scenarios. The main barrier appears to be legislative leadership’s refusal to allow a vote on removing huge tax breaks for oil and gas producers. On Wednesday night, oil and gas industry lobbyists preemptively held an end-of-session party for lawmakers, but without a budget deal the session may not end anytime soon.
Meanwhile, school districts left in the dark about what their budgets will look like next year have already begun to make cuts. Tulsa Public Schools approved a plan to close three schools and lay off 37 teachers; Oklahoma City is increasing class sizes and selling their administration building; Woodward is shutting down a summer program and cutting staff; Muskogee is ending a popular STEM program. These cuts are only the latest in what is approaching a decade of squeezed education funding — students in 1st grade when we started cutting funding are now high school freshmen. More than 200 schools across the state have already gone to a 4-day school week, and dozens of school districts are looking at or have already shortened their school year.
It’s well known that Oklahoma has led the nation in cuts to general K-12 funding since 2009. With the massive cuts to Oklahoma higher education last year and more expected this year, the next bad headline we can expect to see is that we are leading in higher education cuts too. That sends a bad message to businesses who need a skilled workforce to bring jobs here, and it is likely continue the steep climb in tuition we’ve seen over the past decade.
The damaging cuts go well beyond education. Last year the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services cut treatment for 73,000 Oklahomans, when Oklahoma already had nearly the highest rate of mental illness and lowest per capita investment in treatment in the nation. Those services are again at stake with this year’s budget.
[pullquote]“Students who were in 1st grade when Oklahoma started cutting school funding are now high school freshmen.”[/pullquote]
For almost a decade, the mental health agency has asked lawmakers to fund smart on crime treatment programs to keep people out of prison. They have never been funded, our incarceration rates continue to go up, and now the Oklahoma Department of Corrections needs more than $1 billion to build and maintain prisons on our current trajectory. To avoid this massive cost, Oklahoma must invest in less costly reforms today, but the budget mess is threatening to derail those reforms.
The Oklahoma Department of Human Services works to protect the most vulnerable citizens in our state, like severely disabled adults, children in the child welfare system, and families living in poverty. The agency’s director Ed Lake has said DHS is now looking at budget cut scenarios “ranging from the terrible to the unthinkable.” In a memo to all DHS staff, he wrote, “There is nothing of substance left to cut aside from programs and services. The point has come where real people—very vulnerable adults and children—will lose basic and high-skilled services that keep them in their own homes or communities, or worse, lose protections that keep them safe.”
The Oklahoma Health Care Authority would have to severely reduce what they pay to nursing homes, doctors, and hospitals if funding is cut. That would be especially bad news for rural and small town Oklahoma, where many hospitals are already shutting down or deep in the red. The head of the state’s nursing home association predicts that “very few homes, if any, will be able to keep their doors open” following the cuts that would happen without new revenues. That means not only health care becoming inaccessible in big parts of Oklahoma, but also a loss of the biggest employers in many small towns.
At about this time last year, we wrote:
All of these examples are limited to what has made the news. The damage of underfunded public services also bubbles up in invisible ways — in the problems that go unaddressed because we never hear about them. What abuses of tax breaks are going undetected because the Oklahoma Tax Commission lost 12 percent of its funding since 2009? [Update: Still down 12 percent] What mismanagement of taxpayer dollars goes unnoticed because the State Auditor was cut 30 percent? [Update: Now down 42 percent] What polluting of our air and water has gone unseen because the Department of Environmental Quality has lost 30 percent of its state funds? [Update: Now down 39 percent] What preventable disasters are not being prevented because the Fire Marshal was cut 29 percent? [Update: Now down 37 percent]
Not only did we fail to address any of these problems last year. We didn’t even stop the bleeding. This is what’s at stake, and why more than ever Oklahomans need to tell legislators to pass the revenues needed to save our state.