Budget decisions confront numerous unmet needs for Oklahomans (Capitol Update)

It seems a little earlier than usual, but you can tell when thoughts start turning toward adjournment of the Legislature by increased talk about the budget. Because the Legislature runs on a timetable of deadlines, the substantive law and policy measures get the attention early in the session. Early appropriations work consists mainly of waiting for the final numbers from the State Board of Equalization and hearing from agencies about their needs, budget requests, and performance last year. The deciding comes later.

This year’s budget process could be different than most. Usually, the governor’s budget contains spending proposals for all the money available for appropriation. It has been met in the past with reactions by the Legislature ranging from “dead on arrival” to a starting point for discussions. In the end final negotiations between House, Senate and governor boil down to several “must have” priorities for each of the three.

But this year Governor Stitt has limited his recommendations to a few items, including a $1200 teacher pay raise and the recommendation of not appropriating over $200 million available for appropriation. I hope this is a product of timing. His budget proposal had to be written between his election and taking office. As a newcomer to state government he could be easily forgiven for not being totally aware of the devastation to state services caused by the budget cuts of the past decade. At least partially as the result of the teacher walkout, everyone seems aware of what budget shortfalls did to public education. But it takes time to dig into the minutia of governing to fully appreciate other agencies’ services and how much they should cost.

It will be a shame indeed if the governor feels bound by what he said two weeks into office and insists on socking away money while there are numerous unmet needs. The Oklahoma Constitution already has a conservative scheme for appropriations which allows the Legislature to appropriate only 95% of anticipated general revenue. There seems to have developed a good relationship between House and Senate leaders and the governor. He’s fortunate to have strong legislators leading the House and Senate appropriations committees, including the chairmen and subcommittee chairmen. None are big spenders, but they know their areas of responsibility.

It has been remarked by many that the atmosphere in the Capitol is different in a good way this year. Part of that is likely because of the many new faces, including the Legislature and the governor and his team. People are not so fixed in their outlook and seem more willing to listen. The other cause for more positive feelings can be attributed to the presence of additional revenue to begin fixing some of the state’s problems. Failing to do so would be a disappointment. The kinds of services provided by state government are not usually luxuries. The people who need them, need them now. A year or two from now may be too late for them.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Steve Lewis served as Speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives from 1989-1991. He currently practices law in Tulsa and represents clients at the Capitol.

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