Effective democracy requires more transparency in Oklahoma state government

Oklahoma’s government is one of the least transparent in the nation. In contrast to other states, the general public is largely left out of the budget process and deprived of basic expectations of government such as public debate. Unfortunately, that didn’t change this year. Business as usual — including inadequate time for budget reviews, no process for public feedback, and circumventing legislative rules — means state government cannot truly represent the values and needs of our state. Oklahomans need timely, accurate information from their government and a means through which to meaningfully participate in the budget process. Legislators should increase transparency to ensure the state government is working for the people it is designed to serve.

Legislators need more time to review the budget

Most of the budget is crafted by legislative leaders including the appropriations and budget chairs, president pro tempore of the Senate, speaker of the House, and/or their designees.Although appropriations and budget subcommittees have some input early in the process, final decisions are made by a small select group of members, while the rest of the legislature has only a matter of hours to review the budget before voting. This year’s state budget was released on a Monday around 6 p.m. and then voted on the next day, allowing less than 24 hours for lawmakers to determine how the state would spend more than $10 billion dollars for vital state services. For another example, legislators were given two hours this session to review a $700 million business incentive bill for an undisclosed company. (Turns out this package was Oklahoma’s unsuccessful attempt to lure a Panasonic plant to our state.) Most people wouldn’t make major financial decisions for their family without doing their due diligence, and it’s irrational that lawmakers don’t hold themselves accountable to the same standard.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have complained about Oklahoma’s rushed and closed budget process. In a press conference explaining his veto of key parts of the state budget this year, Gov. Stitt also called out the lack of transparency in the budget proceedings,  echoing complaints of lawmakers in prior legislative sessions. Oklahoma should adopt policies that open the budget process to both legislators and the public. 

Oklahoma’s brief budget deliberation period is in stark contrast to the practices of other states. The average state deliberated about their budget for 82 days, according to an OK Policy analysis of state budget actions in 2021. The three days Oklahoma used for budget deliberations was the nation’s third shortest such timeframe that year, behind only Utah (two days) and Nevada (one day). With four days between the budget release and legislative approval, Oklahoma didn’t fare much better this year; the budget was released just 11 days before the required end of its four-month session with less than 24 hours of deliberation before the first vote. This incredibly short time frame does not allow legislators time to properly weigh the budget’s impact or gain input from their constituents and key stakeholders. 

The lack of debate and limited time for review doesn’t allow constituents to know what parts of the budget their legislators value and prioritize, nor does it  allow constituents to hold their legislators accountable for their vote. The legislature already only gives themselves minimal time to review and weigh in, but the public — most of whom cannot drop everything at 6 p.m. to read a bill before its vote the next morning — has virtually none. 

Constituents need to be able to weigh in

Along with many legislators, everyday Oklahomans are given neither enough information nor the proper means to influence the state budget. Even if they do want to weigh in, there is no formal procedure for public feedback on the budget. 

Oklahoma need only look to a number of states for examples of how to make the budget process more receptive to public input. Six of 20 states comparable to Oklahoma held public hearings on budget bills in the 2021 legislative session. Arizona and Hawai’i allow online testimony and make all testimony available to the public. Six states (Alaska, Nevada, New York, North Dakota, Washington, and Wyoming) have online portals that allow residents to send messages on bills. In four of those states (Nevada, New York, North Dakota, and Washington), residents can vote on bills and the vote total in each district is shared with the representative for that district. If Oklahomans were able to weigh in on the budget, maybe lawmakers would prioritize public services that benefit us all.

Oklahomans deserve transparency from their elected officials

Oklahomans deserve thoughtful discussion and consideration of sweeping policy changes. They should expect public debate and accurate information about bills to know where their lawmakers stand on important issues. However, the legislative supermajority allows lawmakers to circumvent procedural rules when politically expedient. This year, House lawmakers voted to disallow debate in order to pass controversial bills limiting abortion acess and transgender students’ bathroom usage. They also waived a 24-hour requirement for committee substitutions to pass a bill overhauling charter school oversight, giving some legislators just an hour to review the bill before it was brought up for a vote. Another bill originally on posting identifiable information about police officers became, in quick succession, a bill about cockfighting which became a bill about loitering, and then through an amendment, became a bill criminalizing giving material containing LGBTQ+ representation to minors, people with an intellectual or developmental disability, or people experiencing homelessness.  If lawmakers believe their proposals to be in the best interest of Oklahomans, they should not be afraid to take the time to present and debate them in the light of day. 

This is not unfamiliar territory. Last year, lawmakers used legislative maneuvering to quickly rewrite a bill that originally would have re-created a commission to review the Oklahoma-Texas border into a bill banning all state entities from conducting gender and diversity training. These last-minute substitutions make it nearly impossible for the public to contact their legislators because they often can’t reasonably know what issue is even being voted on.

Creating even more barriers to transparency, state legislators have exempted themselves from Oklahoma’s Open Meeting Act. Under the act, agendas for regular and special meetings held by cities, counties, and school boards must be posted in a publicly accessible location for at least 24 hours prior to its meeting, and must identify all items of business of the meeting. House Bill 3525, which would have required legislative committees to publish meeting agendas, blocked lawmakers from voting on measures while in closed caucus sessions and opened a more formal way for the public to comment on bills, failed to even get a hearing this session. Stronger open meeting laws ensure that residents are knowledgeable about the actions of their government and can provide timely feedback to their legislators, as well as make informed decisions at election time. State legislators need to hold themselves to the same standards that we have set for every other level of government to foster meaningful public engagement and accountability.  A group of legislators will be conducting an interim study in September on the Open Meeting Act later this year. Hopefully, this will include a discussion about ending the legislature’s exemption to these rules.

Oklahoma government can accomplish more with stronger public involvement 

At present, Oklahomans have little, if any, influence on the state budget or the process in which it is created. Legislative maneuvering compounded with a general lack of transparency makes it difficult for residents to meaningfully engage in the work of democracy. When everyday people are left out of important decisions, Oklahoma is left with a legislature that represents political insiders instead of the communities they have been elected to serve. Steps that could make the state legislature more transparent and accessible include:

  • Holding public hearings,
  • Allowing public testimony or comments on the budget, either in person or online, and
  • Subjecting the state legislature to Oklahoma’s Open Meeting Act. 

By adopting transparency best practices, the state legislature can better meet the needs of Oklahomans and represent the shared values of the state.


Sabine Brown joined the Oklahoma Policy Institute as Housing Senior Policy Analyst in January 2022. She previously worked at OK Policy from January 2018 until September 2020 as the Outreach and Legislative Director, and earned a Master of Public Administration degree from the University of Oklahoma-Tulsa. Before joining OK Policy she served as the Oklahoma Chapter Leader for Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America. Sabine also earned a Bachelor of Science and a Master of Health Science from the University of Oklahoma and was a physician assistant prior to discovering advocacy work. She grew up in Germany but has called Oklahoma home since 1998.

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