Civic engagement groups prepare for the next legislative session (Oklahoma Gazette)

By Laura Eastes

Last week, when Oklahoma’s chief budget negotiator divulged that the state was short $868 million in revenue for the coming year, it reinforced concerns that once again lawmakers would have another difficult budget to balance and citizens would bear the brunt with cuts to state services.

As this is the third straight budget shortfall, Oklahoma is no stranger to the aftermath of a cash-strapped coffer. In 2016, two revenue failures led to across-the-board budget cuts of 7 percent, shrinking state agency budgets and impacting a gamut of governmental services.

Unless lawmakers come up with new revenues, state agencies will likely see another round of cuts. The State Board of Equalization, chaired by the governor, certified $6 billion for available spending, which will be determined by lawmakers during the legislative session.

State leaders, including Finance Secretary Preston Doerflinger, promise to float revenue-raising proposals when session begins Feb. 6. However, last session, Gov. Mary Fallin called for expansion of the sales tax base and an increase of the cigarette tax to no avail.

Given the state numbers, along with the detrimental impact of this year’s state budget cuts on education, human services, health and public safety, 2017 will undoubtedly bring new challenges and opportunities for action.

Oklahomans engaged in Together Oklahoma and Let’s Fix This stand ready to advocate.

Together Oklahoma

Oklahomans are known throughout the United States for their compassion and commitment to the Oklahoma Standard, which encompasses the spirit of resilience in the face of adversity. Time and time again, Oklahomans are quick to respond to calls for aiding tornado victims or pledge funds for worthy causes assisting people in need.

When it comes to the crisis at the state Capitol, there is no clear course of action, which can discourage citizens from getting involved, explained Kara Joy McKee, outreach and advocacy coordinator at Oklahoma Policy Institute.

With a desire to connect the state’s values to the state’s budget priorities, Oklahoma Policy Institute developed Together Oklahoma. In communities like Oklahoma City and Norman, ordinary Oklahomans are becoming involved, learning about state policies, engaging with state government and advocating their interests.

Oklahomans from a multitude of different backgrounds and spanning generations are joining Together Oklahoma chapter meetings and hearing how state polices and budget decisions have impacted each other’s lives. At each meeting, group members strategize about how to bring change and reverse the trends of bleak budgets.

“No matter what you do or who you are, it’s obvious that our state has been weakened by this budget shortfall,” said McKee, who oversees Together Oklahoma. “We have to come together to share our resources [and] ideas and invest in what we care about, like teachers and schools, roads and bridges, health and mental health care and safe communities.”

In the days and weeks that followed Election Day, phone calls and emails flooded the Together Oklahoma office. Attendance counts from recent meetings in Oklahoma City, Norman and Tulsa are doubled when compared to a year ago. Interest continues to grow in Together Oklahoma as communities like Shawnee, Edmond and Stillwater push to establish their own chapters.

“I absolutely believe we can do better,” McKee said. “I believe Oklahomans care. I believe we are stronger together. I believe we can be a great state, not just OK.”

Let’s Fix This

At each Let’s Fix This event, founder and executive director Andy Moore stands up to introduce himself as a “regular guy” to the crowd.

To understand the mission of Let’s Fix This — and why the grassroots effort turned nonprofit has become hugely successful in the metro — you have to know the organization’s backstory. A regular guy frustrated with the state’s financial mess planned a visit to the state Capitol to talk with lawmakers about the budget hole and funding issues. Moore invited his friends and family, created a Facebook event and watched as people just like him went to the Capitol. With little experience — but with advice from some lawmakers — the bipartisan group took seats in the House and Senate galleries and went door to door through the Capitol offices.

“People really do want to be involved, and they want to have a voice,” Moore said. “They just don’t know how to do it. We realized there was a gap, and we created opportunities.”

Face-to-face meetings with lawmakers are the cornerstones of the Let’s Fix This movement. The opportunities to engage with lawmakers are expanding as Let’s Fix This leaders plan unconventional outings to shake hands and speak to elected officials.

Already, Let’s Fix This plans to gather at the Capitol at least once during the months of February, March, April and May. The outings are open to anyone with an interest in citizen advocacy or learning more about the ins and outs of state government. In the evenings on the days of the Capitol visits, Let’s Fix This participants will flock to restaurants and eateries for more causal encounters with lawmakers.

All Let’s Fix This events are grounded in the organization’s initial goal of proving citizen engagement matters and can make a difference.

“We really want to show people their voice matters,” Moore said.

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