In better budget times, Legislature takes back control of the purse strings (Capitol Update)

The legislative appropriations process is fascinating to watch. There was a news story about the June 27th meeting of the State Board of Education in which it was reported that the Board had no need to approve the budget for public schools because every dollar of the appropriation had already been line-itemed by the legislature. The recently minted Board, appointed by Governor Stitt, simply reviewed what the Legislature had allocated.

This is another example of “what goes around comes around.” In past years, the Legislature, exercising its control of the purse strings, line-itemed a significant share of the money appropriated to state agencies. This was especially true with common education since it is such a large portion of the budget, and nearly everyone has strong feelings about education. Then, in 2011, when Governor Fallin took office and the Senate joined the House with Republican majorities, a “no-line-item” philosophy developed.

The feeling at the time was that the legislature’s job was to appropriate an overall amount of state funds among the various state agencies, then let the executive branch decide how to spend it. This happened for several reasons. The first was philosophical. Republicans at the time simply had a more “top-down” philosophy of governing. This can still be seen today in the Legislature’s quick approval of Governor Stitt’s request for hiring and firing authority over state agency directors.

A second reason was that, at the time, Oklahoma was in an economic downturn which had existed a couple of years by 2011. It’s much less pleasant to cut programs than to increase funding. The thinking went, if cuts had to be made, better that unelected agency directors do the dirty work rather than the legislature taking the heat as they had before. Agency directors argued successfully that by having maximum flexibility – meaning no line items – they could better manage the cuts.

A third reason was that Republicans, while in the minority, suspected the Democrats had misused line items to mandate “pet projects” of individual legislators. This was true to an extent. Rather than the top-down, or corporate model of governing, the Democrats were more bottom-up. New ideas for governing were as likely to come from a legislator who had been to a community meeting or a seminar of some type as from the governor or a state agency. No doubt, some ideas are better than others. When Republicans took over, their response was to simply eliminate line items and trust the governor and agency directors to continue the good programs.

It didn’t take long to learn they had thrown the baby out with the bath water. School Superintendent Janet Barresi eliminated several very good and very popular programs that threw the heat back on legislators. The same thing happened with the Department of Human Services. Legislators learned quickly they were not off the hook with the public when  popular and needed programs were eliminated. It was not long until line items began to show up in appropriations measures again, and the practice has grown steadily.

To me this is as it should be. Why waste the energy, talent and interaction with the public of 149 elected legislators and cede to the executive branch any innovation in governance that has a budget impact? To say nothing of the legislature’s constitutional duty to control the purse strings.


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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