Doing more with less? State employee association directors says "We're there"

The ongoing state budget crisis has meant fewer state employees are assuming greater responsibilities.  Sterling Zearley is Executive Director of Oklahoma Public Employees Association, the largest association representing state employees. I spoke with him by phone on November 16th. Here’s a transcript of the interview, which has been edited for length and clarity.

David Blatt: The past two years have seen increasingly deeper cuts to the state budget. What has been the impact on state employees?

Sterling Zearley: Well, as you know, we’ve lost approximately 2,000 state employees in the last year, which concerns us because we know state employees provide a great service to the state of Oklahoma…Last year we did a voluntary buy-out (VOBO) which helped to keep from doing so many RIFs (Reductions-in-Force). The problem is, when you do VOBOs, you lose a lot of your long-term employees and you lose a lot of institutional knowledge when those employees leave state service.

DB: What agencies are currently facing the greatest challenges in managing budget cuts and shortfalls?

SZ: Well the main one we’ve been most worried about is DOC. Right now we’re at 70 percent staffing and we’re at 99 percent inmate capacity. That really concerns us for the safety not only of the employees but of the general public. Right now they’re doing furloughs one day a month. You still have to have minimum personnel to manage those inmate populations. We know pretty much each week  you have only 75 percent percent of your staff there of that 70 percent because that’s their furlough week . [See DOC Director Justin Jones’ recent post on the agency’s funding crisis]

DB: How does the outlook appear going forward?

SZ: I’m not sure what the next budget cycle is going to bring, the next legislative session. While revenues are growing, a lot of that money that has plugged holes last year, that stimulus money, is not going to be there.

We hope revenue continues to grow but we’re still going to be in a hole, and I’m not sure what that’s going to mean as far as budgetary cuts for additional state agencies. You know, it’s sad because state services provide a safety net for our most vulnerable citizens, whether it’s mental health issues, or public safety like DOC, or veterans centers, or OJA [Office of Juvenile Affairs] for our troubled youth.  We’ve taken anywhere from 7-12 percent cuts over the last year or two years and we’re getting down to where we’re going to have to make a choice: are we going to keep locking people up? If we decide to do that as Oklahoma citizens, that’s great , but you know what? There’s a cost associated with that. And is it better to  deal with those individuals out in the community where they cost us $4,000 or $5,000, whether they have a drug or an alcohol problem, or do we want to incarcerate them where it can cost us anywhere from $16,000 to $22,000 a year?

DB: You know, some people say state agencies are just gonna have to continue to learn how to do more with less. How do you respond to that?

SZ: Well, I mean, we’re there. I want to applaud all the state agencies and state employees. They’ve done a great job. You look at DOC, we’re lucky we haven’t had any huge incident because we’re at 70 percent staffing versus 99 percent  inmate population. They’re doing more with less. The problem is the citizens are gonna suffer…You just can’t keep cutting services and not expect it to have any impact.

DB: Has there been any upside to the state budget crisis for state employees?

SZ: Well, the only upside I can see, if you want to call it that, is that I think citizens are beginning to see the impact that state services have on everybody’s day-to-day life. It doesn’t matter who you are, state employees provide a service to you every day, whether you’re driving on the roads or drinking clean water, whether you’re eating in a restaurant, whether we’re protecting our veterans, or public safety issues, incarcerating inmates.  If you look at State Question 744, a lot of the campaign opposing SQ 744 was predicated on if this passes, it’s going to decimate the other state services. I think that was a great message that people related to.  I hope we continue down that road.

DB: What advice will you be giving to the new Governor and legislative leadership on what they should be doing to manage ongoing budget shortfalls?

SZ:  I’d say, look, you need to prioritize what Oklahoma state employees do, what state agencies do. The big buzzword is privatization. Let me tell you, that’s not always the answer.  Take the Department of Corrections where you’ve had private prison institutions. We pay a daily rate for inmates, a per diem to those facilities. Well, if someone from California comes in and decides they’re going to pay a higher per diem, what do you do with those inmates from Oklahoma? Either you have to raise your per diem rate or you have to just move them somewhere else. And that’s the thing I would say to the new Administration – you’ve got to look at all aspects. I know the buzzwords are streamline, privatize, whatever that may be, that’s not always the answer, there are other answers there.

DB: Anything else you want to add?

SZ: (laughs) I’d like about $1 billion increase in state revenues, that would be nice.

DB: I’m afraid we’re not gonna get there!


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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