Fear of sound bite motivates bad budget decisions (Capitol Updates)

Photo by Sindre Sorhus / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Photo by Sindre Sorhus / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Steve Lewis served as Speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives from 1989-1991. He currently practices law in Tulsa and represents clients at the Capitol. You can sign up on his website to receive the Capitol Updates newsletter by email.

Governor Fallin finally signed the general appropriations bill last week.  Along with legislative leaders, she said she was proud to have been able to avoid a cut in education, common education that is.  Higher education and Career Tech took cuts.  No matter your political persuasion it has to be seen as remarkable that, beginning with a $611 million budget deficit, the leaders were able to avoid further cuts to public schools.  State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister had called for a teacher pay raise, as had her predecessor, Janet Barresi, but that was not to be.  Hofmeister has said the flat budget will cause closing of schools and elimination of some education programs next school year along with a continued teacher shortage.

Some legislative leaders are already saying they hope to find the money for teacher raises next session.  But they missed an opportunity this year to make that less difficult.  By allowing a tax cut to go into effect they lost $50 million this year and $147 million next year for the revenue base.  One has to wonder why legislators who obviously are sincere in their desire to better fund our schools would make it harder on themselves to do so.

Part of the answer can be found in headlines this weekend of the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs calling out the governor, and implicitly legislative leaders, for touting this year’s budget as less than last year’s.  OCPA points out that when you count supplemental appropriations and add up all the money the legislature appropriated and the governor will spend, it’s more than last year’s.  This is just OCPA’s way of saying, “don’t think you’re getting away with it.  We know you’re not really right-sizing government.”  OCPA complains of an unspecified $40 million waste for promotional trinkets, advertising and memberships that should have been cut.  Apparently in their view we no longer need to advertise the benefits of doing business or vacationing in Oklahoma or belong to organizations with other states.

These folks and their followers will always find another dollar somewhere that needs to be cut before you can justify more funding for education, mental health, corrections or anything else, regardless of the merits. Legislators believe, with good cause, that this is the prevailing point of view in the state.  Otherwise they would not feel the need to camouflage a slight increase in a meager budget or allow a tax cut to cause further budget cuts.  As OCPA said, “a number of these lawmakers have run on and been elected on advertising that they would right-size government and make the tough decisions that Oklahomans have to make with their own budgets.”  Now, that’s a sound bite that sells.  Those who don’t agree have yet to find their voice.

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Steve Lewis served as Speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives from 1989-1990. He currently practices law in Tulsa and represents clients at the Capitol.

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