Amid budget deadlock, a reminder of what’s at stake

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.

“Students who were in 1st grade when Oklahoma started cutting school funding are now high school freshmen.”

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.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Gene Perry joined OK Policy in January 2011. He is a native Oklahoman and a citizen of the Cherokee Nation. He graduated from the University of Oklahoma with a B.A. in history and an M.A. in journalism. Gene also serves on the board of the Oklahoma Sustainability Network, is a trustee of the Oklahoma Foundation for Excellence, is a member of Investigative Reporters and Editors, and has chaired the communications advisory committee for the State Priorities Partnership, a nationwide network of state fiscal policy think tanks. He lives in Tulsa with his wife Kara Joy McKee, who is a Tulsa City Councilor.

3 thoughts on “Amid budget deadlock, a reminder of what’s at stake

  1. My name is Amanda O’Connor and I would like to tell you about my daughter, Laurel. Laurel was born 3/19/16 by emergency C section at 40 weeks and 1 day gestation. We went to the hospital due to decreased fetal movement and were so sure we were just being paranoid that we didn’t even bring our hospital bag with us. After running a series of tests, the doctor on call told us that the baby was in some distress, that we could try a vaginal birth if we wanted to but that the baby probably wouldn’t tolerate it so we opted to go forward with the C section. Laurel ended up being far worse off than they realized. Upon her birth, the cord was wrapped around her neck and the amniotic fluid was heavily meconium stained. She was not breathing and had no heartbeat. After 20 minutes of resuscitation and several rounds of epi the neonatologist pulled me aside and said “we normally stop at 25 minutes, but we are going to go to 30”. At 26 minutes of life, they finally got a faint heartbeat and she was whisked out of the room to the NICU. This began a grueling 6 week NICU stay with too many ups and downs to recount here. Against all odds, Laurel survived. She is 100% tube fed, has cerebral palsy and is developmentally delayed as well as hearing impaired. We have already exhausted our savings account once since her birth due to her medical bills. However, we had already planned to move to Yukon before she was born so, in order to keep from going completely broke, we sold our house in OKC a few years sooner than planned, but the money from that transaction is already dwindling and Laurel is going to need physical therapy, feeding therapy, occupational therapy and speech therapy for many many many years to come, not to mention specialist visits and regular pediatrician appointments so we intend to apply for TEFRA this year to help us cover our out of pocket costs of her desperately needed medical care. Laurel has also benefited greatly from the Sooner Start program which offers therapy services free of charge to children with developmental delays free of charge until 3 years of age. Early intervention has been critical to Laurel’s progress and without Sooner Start, Laurel would not be doing as well as she is today. If further cuts are made to DHS, I fear being denied TEFRA benefits or TEFRA not covering our out of pocket costs the services that are critical to her recovery. And I fear that other children in need of critical early intervention services will be placed on lengthy waiting lists. Our children deserve better.

  2. I would like to know what ever happened to public “servants”? For all the rhetoric wherein the “people” are waived like a banner beneath which the politicians proclaim their allegiance, I see very little “servant” attitude. Rather I see arrogance, egos, and self-serving. I am obviously using a broad brush, but too often both nationally and locally, this is what I see. Speaking strictly now of our state, something is missing in our leaders; something which should be at the core of their calling. Everyone seems to want to be a “leader”, but too few are willing to become servants.Being elected does not make one a servant. Being a servant makes one a servant. There is a phrase which gained popularity, especially here in the West, that has been used to covey an idea which seems lost on those who count themselves as leaders. The phrase is “Cowboy Up”. It is way past time for our leaders to “cowboy up”, stop fighting to win some political ground, or stroke some special interest group. It’s time to just serve the people. It is time for our leaders to forget about personal political gain. It’s time for them to stop feeding those special interest groups who could easily eat a little less, and start feeding the people they swore to “serve”! I have infinitely more respect for a leader who actually serves and perhaps doesn’t get re-elected, than a politician who is self-serving just to get re=elected. Is there anyone willing to Cowboy up?

  3. I would say that depends on the service ? are we talking citizens here ? or are we speaking illegals ? that’s what this all boils down to . you lost your funding because of subsidies cuts , as Trump said he would do. which are not backed by the state but only the feds. this is typical of Oklahoma, this whole thing falls back on oklahoma because its a welfare state and taking to much from the feds, its time oklahoma cuts school budgets and starts taking care of their own poor and give the money to do so . instead we see once again schools wanting to take more of the pie and this is oklahomas problem . a big problem . as for your re-election sir , your out of their come election day . this state is tired of lifer politicians, and a do nothing state government , one of the biggest state welfare systems in our state , all of you spoon fed off the backs of the tax payer . and Oklahoma’s government is to big anyways.

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