Coalition crafts budget blueprint to solve state’s shortfall (Enid News)

By Janelle Stecklein

OKLAHOMA CITY — Members of Oklahoma’s Save Our State Coalition acknowledge when organizers put out their emergency “SOS” call that a group of seemingly strange bedfellows responded.

After all, in today’s divisive political climate where longtime allies now are facing off in the fight for every dollar, it would appear the group has little in common, members acknowledge.

But as the days tick down on attempts to fix the state’s nearly $900 million shortfall — and fears mount that program cuts and employee layoffs may be inevitable — the bipartisan members say they have managed to find common ground.

“It’s not just one of us,” said Kara Joy McKee, a member of the Tulsa-based Oklahoma Policy Institute think tank and one of the lead coordinators of the group. “We’ve all come to realize it’s not about our individual piece of the pie. It’s about the incredible shrinking pie.

“We’re not (going) to play ‘Hunger Games,’ honestly,” she said referring to the popular series of books where children fight each other to the death for survival. “They don’t get to throw us in and say, ‘Fight each other to the death over these scraps.’”

The nearly two-dozen coalition members — including citizen advocacy groups, community organizations, public employees and health-care workers — have laid out their own budget blueprint in an attempt to encourage lawmakers to avert further reductions and invest in what they see as the state’s key priorities.

Those ideas include ending special interest tax giveaways; modernizing the state’s gasoline tax; increasing the tax that oil and gas drillers pay; adjusting the income tax rate for wealthy Oklahomans; and taxing specific services.

“We recognize with the other members … that the state has a structural budget deficit, and we know that we can see very clearly that our state leaders are not going to be able to cut their way to solvency. We’re going to have to find some recurring revenue,” said Heather Hope-Hernandez, chief of external affairs for the Community Service Council, which brings organizations together to solve social issues statewide.

If lawmakers fail to generate new revenue, most state agencies are facing a “devastating” 14 percent budget cut that endangers the survival of state programs, said Sterling Zearley, executive director of Oklahoma Public Employees Association.

“It’s going to affect everyday citizens because those groups have some sort of service they provide to the citizens of Oklahoma,” he said.

Some rural hospital leaders, for instance, say their facilities couldn’t survive such cuts. Neither can nursing homes, owners say. The Department of Public Safety already has parked many of its cruisers and highway patrol troopers to try to save on gasoline. Many schools can’t afford to open five days a week anymore. School teachers, meanwhile, still are holding out hope they’ll finally get a raise.

“This is an emergency,” McKee said. No business — no matter how generous the tax breaks — wants to relocate to a state that can’t afford to maintain its roads and bridges, provide adequate policing, clean water or provide access to great schools, she said.

“You just can’t keep cutting your way out of budget deficits,” Zearley said. “You’ve got a revenue issue, and you’ve got to fix it.”

To fill last year’s $1.3 billion dollar shortfall, lawmakers drained most one-time funding sources, raided the state’s Rainy Day Fund and paid for road projects using bonds, Zearley said.

Much of that one-time funding is gone. While transportation officials say they can no longer afford to borrow to pay for roads and bridge repairs, Zearley said some lawmakers he’s spoken with still believe agencies can weather additional cuts and streamline services.

“I’m really curious where people think they can cut,” he said, adding he doesn’t believe there’s any way to streamline enough state services to save $900 million.

Andy Moore, an Oklahoma City resident who leads the nonpartisan citizen advocacy group Let’s Fix This in his spare time, said the situation is dire. His group tries to get average Oklahomans interacting with their lawmakers.

“This was a give and take for everybody,” he said of the coalition’s budget plan. “When you put it all together, this is really the best mix of revenue measures for Oklahoma that spreads out the (tax) burden among everybody.”

Moore, who works as a health-care administrator, said a lot of Oklahomans would be willing to pay a little bit more for a gasoline tax in order to have safe and well-maintained roadways.

Most Oklahomans, he believes, understand that the state must raise new revenue to keep popular programs afloat.

“There (are) only so many switches we can flip to fix the budget,” he said. “We’re just waiting for the members of the House and Senate to flip the switches and put it to a vote so we can have a more successful Oklahoma.”

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