In a recent article on state budget negotiations, House Speaker Kris Steele said he and other state leaders are “doing our best to minimize the cuts” to core agencies. He contrasted the treatment of core agencies to the larger cuts that would be made to other areas of government.
This is a red herring. Perhaps education will be cut 5 percent, compared to, say, a 10 percent cut to the Department of Environmental Quality. But those areas identified as core services (education, health and human services, public safety, and transportation) already make up almost 90 percent of state appropriations.
The real issue is not how the vast majority of the budget is treated compared to a few of the smallest state agencies. Speaker Steele and other lawmakers cannot claim in good faith to be protecting core services while ignoring revenue options and voting to make the problem worse.
OK Policy has long called for a balanced approach to the state budget that recognizes the serious and lasting harm being done by cuts and uses every available tool to preserve our public sector resources. Lawmakers do seem to be considering tapping into revolving funds and 5 percent money, but they have not pursued other good ideas, such as requiring online merchants to collect their fair share of taxes, revisiting unnecessary oil and gas tax breaks, limiting itemized deductions, suspending other tax exemptions, and approving bond issues for long-term efficiency gains.
We staved off total collapse during the worst of the recession by using stimulus and rainy day funds and putting a moratorium on some tax credits. Yet successive years of cuts have left most agency budgets reduced by 15 percent or more. And despite continuing shortfalls, legislators are already restoring tax credits and pushing new income tax and property tax breaks that will further reduce revenues.
We are all affected by the steady corrosion of our public resources. Oklahoma’s private sector depends on transportation infrastructure and an educated workforce. The most vulnerable Oklahomans depend on public support for basic needs. We all depend on the vital role of the state in public health and safety.
A budget deal is imminent, but it’s never too late for lawmakers to take a more responsible approach to funding Oklahoma’s critical needs. As details of the eventual agreement come out, we should not forget that what matters is not just how cuts are distributed, but whether lawmakers make the hard choices that recognize good government needs to be paid for.
Lawmakers may claim that the recession has forced their hand, but we always have a choice. We can pay what is needed to tackle public problems today. We can invest in the infrastructure and sound budgeting practices that will make a foundation for future prosperity. Or we can let our problems fester, let our public sector fall apart, and hand off the hard decisions to our children.
The choice is ours.