Don't blame us: Legislature passes the buck while passing the bucks

The budget deal is done, and nearly every state agency is receiving another round of funding reductions. That leaves an important question: what programs will be cut to make up the loss? How cuts are distributed will have a huge effect on state services, but the Legislature seems to be abandoning its responsibility to make these hard decisions.

In previous years, the Legislature would approve budget limit bills directing agencies on how to spend state dollars. Although each agency’s budget bills looked a little different, sections typically included:

  • how much may be spent in various budget categories;
  • line-item expenditures for various programs and contracts;
  • “legislative intent” on what the agency should and should not do;
  • limits on the agency director’s salary and the agency’s  maximum number of FTE.

That changed last year, when leadership chose not to run budget limit bills for most agencies. This year there are less than a handful.

The argument for doing away with budget limit bills is that, especially at a time of ongoing and worsening budget shortfalls, agencies deserve greater discretion and flexibility to manage their budgets as they see fit, rather than being subject to legislative mandates.  However, by so doing, the Legislature is also trying to absolve itself of  responsibility – and accountability – unless forced by popular outrage to intervene..

The State Department of Education provides an example of how this dynamic plays out. One section of the General Appropriations (GA) bill appropriates the Department of Education a lump sum to cover a wide range of expenditures, including the health benefit allowances for teachers and support staff, a portion of teacher retirement contributions, alternative education programs, SoonerStart, early childhood initiatives, and the state match for the school lunch program. For FY ’10, the Department’s budget limit bill provided a line-item breakdown of how to allocate $458.6 million of these “public school activities” from the GA bill.

In FY ’11, this appropriation was reduced to $419.8 million, but there was no guidance on how to distribute the $38.8 million cut. After it emerged that the Department planned to eliminate $10 million for early childhood education, Governor Henry issued an Executive Order instructing them instead to reduce all line items by a proportionate amount. The Department ultimately adopted its own plan, which kept early childhood education at $10 million and increased funding for employee health benefit allowances by $22.2 million, but did not fully fund the teachers retirement credit, and eliminated or substantially cut funding for such programs as staff development, mentor teacher stipends, and drivers’ ed. The Department’s decisions were strongly criticized but were not formally challenged.

This year, the FY ’12 GA bill cuts Department of Education program funding to $401.2 million, a reduction of $18.6 million, or 4.4 percent, from FY ’11, and $57.3 million, or 12.5 percent, from FY ’10. A partial budget limits bill, HB 2181, was introduced in the House that would have instructed the Department to allocate a portion of its program funding for four purposes: the teachers retirement credit, employee health benefits allowances, school lunch match, and professional development institutes. However, the Senate refused to take up the bill, in part because the proposed health benefit allowance allocation in HB 2181 was substantially less than the Department allocated this year.

A slightly different example involves the Department of Human Services, which raised the ire of many legislators last year when it opted to address shortfalls by cutting funding for senior nutrition services. Although DHS is taking a smaller cut next year than most agencies – just 1.1 percent – it claims to be facing a shortfall of up to $39 million due to the loss of federal funds and one-time revenues and increased program operating expenses. In this case, the Legislature has approved HB 2183, which spells out legislative intent that the Department not cut various programs and services for seniors and persons with disabilities – but without specifying what can or should be cut.

Without legislative direction, the Department of Education, DHS and other agencies will largely be left on their own to figure out where and what to cut. When legislators hear from displeased constituents, they may try to shift blame to agencies and claim they never intended to cut funding for teachers’ retirement benefits, state troopers, child abuse prevention programs or state parks.

However, the Legislature made the choice to reduce funding. They may hand off the hard decisions about implementing the budget, but they are still the ones that must be held responsible for the results.


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.

3 thoughts on “Don't blame us: Legislature passes the buck while passing the bucks

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.