Do parties matter less than we think?

In the heat and passion of the legislative session, the battles that divide the political parties tend to grab the spotlight. This year, for the first time in history, Republicans controlled both chambers of the Oklahoma legislature. The session featured the Republican majority pursuing a wide range of policy priorities that had long been out of reach while the Democrats controlled the Legislature (pre-2004) and, more recently when control of the chambers was divided (2004-08): examples include tort reform, prohibitions on embyronic stem cell research, education deregulation, voter ID requirements, and term limits for statewide officeholders. Many of these issues pitted  Republican lawmakers against their Democratic counterparts and/or Governor Brad Henry.

Yet without minimizing the legitimate and heartfelt differences that divide the parties on many issues, if you look at budget and tax policies, the story looks rather different. Here the Legislature and Governor reached an agreement that used over $640 million in federal stimulus dollars to maintain funding for vital state services while increasing overall spending by 1.5 percent. In the context of declining state revenues, no significant tax cut measures were adopted this session. It’s hard to imagine the outcomes being significantly different had Democrats been in control of one or both chambers.

As a very rough, preliminary attempt to measure whether party control affects budget decision, we went back through the appropriations history and compared the allocation of appropriated funds between the subcommittees  over the course of this decade as party control of the Governor’s office, House, and Senate has changed. Have funding decisions  changed significantly as Republicans have assumed the Chairmanships of the key appropriations committees?  What we found suggests not.

The overwhelming impression is one of stability and continuity. The most significant change is in the increasing share of funding going to the Health and Social Services committee, from 11.7 percent in FY ’00 to 18.6 percent in FY ’10. This basically reflects growing expenditures for the Medicaid program as enrollment grows and health care costs rise. Education’s share of the budget has fallen slightly, from a peak of 56.3 percent in FY ’03 to 53.4 percent in FY ’10. Funding for Public Safety and Human Services has been extremely consistent as a share of the total budget from year to year. Though not shown above, the share of funding to the General Government subcommittee dropped, but those numbers do not reflect
increased funding to the Department of Transportation in recent years that is set in statute and occurs outside of the appropriations process.

So what can we make of this? Very tentatively, I’d conclude from this data and anecdotal experience that political party and ideology play a limited and secondary role in driving budget decisions. There are at least three factors limiting the importance of partisanship:

  • In the first place, many budget decisions are constrained by state and federal laws, whether it be prison sentencing requirements or Medicaid eligibility or maintenance of eligibility standards for child care funding;
  • Secondly, on budget issues, legislators from both parties must be attentive to the interests and demands of  the agency officials who operate programs, the lobbyists and advocates who promote their causes, and their constituents who depend on state services; and
  • Finally, there is not ultimately a great difference between the priorities and goals of the two parties when it comes to the allocation of public dollars. Providing quality education, protecting public safety, aiding the vulnerable, and promoting economic development truly are bipartisan goals, and both parties recognize that investing in public institutions is a vital component of meeting those goals. This leaves plenty of room for debate on the margins, but it’s simply not as if Democrats wanted to do away with prisons and road repair and now Republicans want to eliminate public education.

For years, Oklahomans waited with gleeful anticipation or palpable dread for the day when Republicans would finally be the ones flying the plane at the Capitol. Maybe, when it comes to fiscal policy, it turns out the flight path is already set and the plane mostly runs on auto-pilot.


Former Executive Director David Blatt joined OK Policy in 2008 and served as its Executive Director from 2010 to 2019. He previously served as Director of Public Policy for Community Action Project of Tulsa County and as a budget analyst for the Oklahoma State Senate. He has a Ph.D. in political science from Cornell University and a B.A. from the University of Alberta. David has been selected as Political Scientist of the Year by the Oklahoma Political Science Association, Local Social Justice Champion by the Dan Allen Center for Social Justice, and Public Citizen of the Year by the National Association of Social Workers.

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