In dispute between Republican leaders over DHS funding, here are the facts

Rep. Leslie Osborn and House Speaker Charles McCall

It’s been an eventful week for the Oklahoma Legislature, especially considering they are not even in session. The week began with House Speaker Charles McCall and Majority Leader Mike Sanders blasting the Oklahoma Department of Human Services for making cuts to services for seniors, foster families, and in-home support for people with developmental disabilities. Three days later, three Republican legislators, including House Appropriations and Budget Chair Leslie Osborn, spoke out in defense of the agency, laying out why the cuts could not have been avoided given insufficient funding to cope with rising needs. The next day, Speaker McCall removed Osborn from her position as Appropriations and Budget committee chair.

Although the Speaker’s office said Rep. Osborn’s public disagreement was “absolutely not” the reason for her ouster, they gave no other reason for the decision, and the timing makes it hard to believe it was unrelated. While we don’t know what internal politics of the House Republican caucus may have contributed to these events, we can look at the facts of the dispute over the DHS cuts.

Speaker McCall’s initial press release stated, “DHS received a $53 million increase in the state appropriations for Fiscal Year 2018” and “the agency owes taxpayers an explanation for why it could afford the programs last year but cannot this year after receiving a large increase in funding.” In fact, the Oklahoma Department of Human Services was appropriated about $48.4 million more than their initial appropriation in FY 2017, but that leaves out an important fact. The initial FY 17 funding level was never enough to operate at-home care programs for seniors and people with disabilities for the full year, which is why the agency needed a supplemental appropriation to maintain those programs through FY 2017. Compared to their final FY 2017 funding after that supplemental (as well as mid-year budget cuts that affected DHS and most other state agencies), the increase in FY 2018 was only $18.6 million, or 2.7 percent.

 So why wasn’t that 2.7 percent increase enough to maintain all of their core services? Back in March, DHS Director Ed Lake explained in detail that flat or near-flat funding would result in cuts because the agency faced increasing expenses and declines in other revenues. The Department has received an overall appropriations increase over the past five years, but all of that increase and more has been devoted to funding court-ordered improvements to Oklahoma’s child welfare system. Outside of child welfare, the agency operates programs to care for and help with the basic economic needs of very poor families with children, fragile seniors, and people with disabilities. For years, spending by the agency on all of these other needs combined has been flat, not keeping up with inflation or other added costs, and nearly all of the growth in revenue to the agency has gone to child welfare. DHS has cut administrative expenses and reduced staffing to avoid the most direct harm to programs for these highly vulnerable populations, but those relatively easier cuts were already made years ago. The agency is left choosing between terrible and more terrible options.

Another headwind for DHS has been a drop in federal funds due to Oklahoma’s declining federal matching rate for Medicaid services. This match, known as the FMAP, is determined by a formula that considers a state‚Äôs per capita income in relation to national per capita income. The formula is meant to provide a higher match in those states where residents have lower incomes and reduce federal funds when residents’ income goes up compared to the nation. Oklahoma’s FMAP has fallen significantly in recent years because our state’s per capita income growth has been strong. The catch is that our economy has continued to leave out a high percentage of families living in poverty, so need has not decreased, and the state has repeatedly cut income taxes and so given away much of the new revenues that rising income could provide.

Another criticism of how DHS handled budget cuts came from House Majority Leader Mike Sanders, who sent out a press release soon after Speaker McCall. While implicitly acknowledging that DHS needed to make cuts of some kind, Sanders took issue with what the agency chose to cut in this round. Sanders wrote, “Yet, the Legislature did not make these cuts. We do not line item agency spending. Instead we trust our agency heads to be able to make the best decisions about what programs should be spared during tough budget times. These are the times when you forego the wish-list items but you still provide for the most vulnerable.”

In particular, Rep. Sanders said he would have preferred DHS cut the 2-1-1 service, a hotline that connects Oklahomans in need with information about where to find services like homeless shelters, mental health treatment, and emergency care. This hotline often provides life-saving information at some of the worst times in people’s lives. But if Rep. Sanders and other members of the legislature really did prefer that DHS cut 2-1-1 instead of what they chose to cut, they could have provided that guidance in legislation.

Back in years when the Legislature was providing new funding to agencies, they certainly did not hesitate to line-item how that funding should be used. It’s only now that they are passing year after year of austerity budgets that they’ve decided to leave out the details of what should be cut and try to shift blame onto agencies when those cuts prove to be unpopular.

[UPDATE: DHS zeroed out its funding for 2-1-1 last year, and funding was not restored this year. Rep. Sanders is calling for the agency to cut funding that has already been cut.]

Oklahoma’s legislative leaders owe it to the people who elected them to take responsibility for their actions, not try to shift the blame to agencies that can only work with what they’re provided. Representatives Osborn, Sears, and Ownbey bravely spoke up to shed light on the truth about hard decisions that they made as legislators. Speaker McCall’s reaction makes it appear that he is more interested in punishing dissent and passing the buck than coming clean with the people of Oklahoma.

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Gene Perry worked for OK Policy from 2011 to 2019. He is a native Oklahoman and a citizen of the Cherokee Nation. He graduated from the University of Oklahoma with a B.A. in history and an M.A. in journalism.

10 thoughts on “In dispute between Republican leaders over DHS funding, here are the facts

  1. Kudos to representatives Osborn, Sears, and Ownbey for speaking the truth to all Oklahomans. Everyone needs to read this informative article which sheds light on problematic decisions that have made in the past. Hopefully more dialog, not less, between our elected officials will empower them to work for the common good of all Oklahomans.

  2. I think if you did some investigative work on Speaker McCall’s practices this past year, you will find he is a “my way or the highway” type of person. Many bills were never introduced because he canned them if he didn’t like them. It was a rumer that there was a plan to oust him but the committee chairs were afraid of him and their positions to buck the status quo. The younger reps were ready. I think that alot more could have been accomplished this past year if all voices could have been heard. He needs to go. He is creating a very unhelathy atmosphere at our capitol.

  3. Wow. You used way too many words and complicated funding information for McCall and Sanders to comprehend. Ive just been calling them arrogant, ignorant punks. I figured they’d understand that. They’ve called out DHS for an explanation to tax payers. Uts been there all along. It just point the finger at them and they dont like it.

  4. Charles McCall should be removed as Speaker. When we were visiting the Capitol we spoke to a Representative from his party and that person said that the leadership was not moving bills forward. They were frustrated with the lack of input.

  5. I work for senior citizens program, we deliver meals to homebound elderly and we also have nutrition center elderly that are not homebound can eat at, for past 7 years we have taken cuts which means we feed less senior citizens, cuts have ranged from 80,000.00 to 129,000.00 and we just been told come Oct. 2017 we are being cut 164,000.00! Really!!! This has got to stop!

  6. Gosh McCall sounds like someone else we know…could he be “gunning” (pun intended) for a higher position with his mentor Cheeto Tweeto?????

    McCall is McSmall!

  7. McCall has done his best to block almost every bill that would have upset his party apple cart and corporate donations. Time and time again, he has stated that he will not introduce bills for discussion on the floor. I believe his job is to facilitate discussion, not control it. It is a democracy, not a dictatorship. The recent actions show that he is dangerously misinformed and does not understand the budgeting process. We can’t afford to have someone of his ilk shutting down avenues for keeping state services afloat. The vindictive removal of Senator Osborn alone raises many, many questions about his objectives. Who does he think he is, Hitler? The Republican Party desperately needs new leadership in this state. I was proud of Senator Osborn for actually researching and coming to understand that the state must have more revenue to keep services to the people in place. She turned away from her party’s mindless tax cuts and breaks for the rich and their shameless pandering to the oil industry (which immediately dumps its employees at any downturn to protect their profits) and has made great strides in educating her party. Apparently the party leadership’s greed has overcome their scruples. McCall needs to go so Oklahoma can move forward with a partisan partnership to put this state back in the black.

  8. It will be interesting to see if McCall can hold onto the speaker-ship after this incident. Leslie Osborn would seem to be a much more capable leader.

  9. If I am remembering correctly, the legislature did the same thing to the Education Department a few years ago. When unpopular cuts were made because of improper funding, legislators blamed the Department instead of themselves and their policies. No one should be surprised when they continue to run our State in this manner. After all, the voters have spoken, haven’t they?

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