Budget hearings illuminate needs of Oklahoma’s major agencies (Capitol Update)

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.

To better inform more House members about the state budget, Speaker Charles McCall has made budget briefings by some of the major state agencies available to all House members. They’ve been held in the House Chamber with all members invited. This is a good idea, especially with the budget crisis the Legislature is facing and with 32 new House members. Usually these briefings, although they are open to everyone, are for the benefit of and mostly attended by the members of the Appropriations and Budget Committee.

There are going to be some difficult votes for legislators, regardless of what direction they take. The more the members know about the budget problems, the more open they’ll be to finding and supporting solutions. Also, the better they’ll be able to explain their votes to constituents. After all, the votes are, or should be, cast in the best interest of constituents. Representing is more than waving a finger in the air to see which way the wind is blowing. It’s also about digging beneath the surface and doing the right thing for the public. To do the right thing members must be able to feel they can explain what they did and why they did it.

First up was State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister who said schools need an additional $221 million just to keep up with what they are doing now. The money is to cover textbook needs, increases in student population and employee benefit costs, and mentoring for emergency certified teachers who were employed because of the teacher shortage. She added an “addendum” to her request for an additional $300 million for a $3,000 teacher pay raise and an increase of four instructional days to what she called Oklahoma’s “woefully short academic calendar.”

Next up was the Department of Transportation which receives much of its funding through earmarked revenues. Director Mike Patterson said ODOT would be happy if the legislature just continues to fulfill its statutory obligation to fund the agency as established by prior legislation, including restoring the approximately $50 million diverted last session from the agency’s fuel tax apportionment.

The week’s hearings concluded with the Regents for Higher Education. Chancellor Glen Johnson said Higher Education has received an overall 23 percent cut over the past four years. One of the more startling and disappointing figures he mentioned was that state aid was three-fourths of higher education’s funding in 1988, and now it makes up approximately 30 percent. Last year alone Higher Ed was cut by $153 million. The cut was offset $90 million by student tuition increases and other sources, but there remained a $61 million cut. It seems fair to say that our public colleges and universities are no longer public. They are primarily non-state funded with a subsidy from the state that continues to get smaller. This has happened since 1988. The regents asked for a budget increase of $147.9 million for next year.

All these requests seem modest in view of what has happened to agency budgets since 2008. It looks as though directors are trying to be realistic knowing there is a large budget hole for next year. But legislators, without revenue increases of some sort, will not be able to meet even these modest requests and will have to make more cuts.

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Steve Lewis served as Speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives from 1989-1990. He currently practices law in Tulsa and represents clients at the Capitol.

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