Déjà Vu All Over Again: funding essential services

Well, it happened again. This month Leadership OK (LOK) was in McAlester instead of in Muskogee, but there was something familiar about what we heard and how the class reacted.

Last month, after a presentation by Neal McCaleb, President of “Transportation Revenues Used Strictly for Transportation” (TRUST) Coalition,  several members of my Leadership OK class expressed outrage at how poorly funded our transportation system is in Oklahoma. They were enthusiastic that we have designated money to this problem. It caused me to start thinking about the larger implications of this reaction.

This month we visited McAlester to have a session on corrections. Once again, there was a general sentiment that we need to do something to address the approach to and funding of corrections. When faced with the realities of many of the critical services provided by the state, it is hard not to look at each one individually and say that we need to designate money for it and ensure a revenue stream.

When listening to the issues faced by a certain agency in isolation, it is easy to say we need to prioritize that problem. However, when listening to multiple agencies in the same venue, it is much harder to make the decision as to which of the essential state services is more essential than the others. Roads and bridges are in an alarming state of disrepair. Should that be number one priority? Education builds for the future and makes Oklahoma more competitive. Should that be the priority? Our system of public safety is responsible for helping protect lives of Oklahomans. Should that be the priority? What about ensuring that there are an adequate number of child welfare workers to protect at-risk children or mental health services that can help prevent violent incidents?

The reality is that all of these things need to be priorities, and much more. I do not envy the legislature when it comes time to make value based decisions about proportional cuts to state agencies rather than across the board cuts. Is cutting senior nutrition programs worse than cutting juvenile mental health services? Unfortunately, we may get to the point where those decisions need to be made. If and when we do, we need to be realistic about what the current cuts mean to agencies and what proposed cuts would mean in the future. In some instances, the cuts today will translate into merely a temporary savings and lead to increased spending in the future. For instance, once you cut Home Nurse Visits, fewer seniors can live on their own. This causes an increase in nursing home admissions, which costs the state more than what we saved by cutting Home Nurse Programs, to say nothing of negatively impacting the lives of the seniors who can no longer live independently.

We can’t protect everything right now. These are desperate times. However, when we look at the long term, it is dangerous to look at specific issues in isolation. Carving out funding for one priority at the expense of other priorities ends up being a zero sum game. We have to start looking at the full situation and figuring out how to address the collective priorities of Oklahoma.

All in all, I feel confident that the theme of inadequate funding will present itself month after month throughout the LOK year. Most issues will not be able to be solved simply by increasing the budget, like transportation, but the lack of proper resources exacerbates many other issues that may also be present. Until we recognize the need for more appropriate funding levels and have the collective will to secure revenue streams necessary to properly fund all essential services, I fear future classes of LOK will also learn month after month why inadequate funding is putting our goals as a state out of reach.


Oklahoma Policy Insititute (OK Policy) advances equitable and fiscally responsible policies that expand opportunity for all Oklahomans through non-partisan research, analysis, and advocacy.

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