I have been involved in Oklahoma’s state budget process as a participant and observer for the last 30 years. While Oklahoma has never been a leader in budget transparency, we’ve moved further away from the goal of open government during that time. If Oklahomans cannot watch and participate in an essential government function such as appropriating their tax dollars, residents cannot ensure that our government’s choices reflect our values and our priorities.
An effective, open budget process both informs and involves the public. Oklahomans can be informed if the legislature widely shares budget requests from our public agencies, debates budgets in public, holds votes on individual budget issues, and provides ample time for all interested parties to evaluate the budget. The public should be involved through public hearings and through the opportunity to comment — both in person and online — about budgets. Our state’s budget process won’t be this transparent until Oklahomans demand it. While many steps must be taken, moving back toward the more open and participative process of the 1990s would put us on the right track.
The state budget process was more public in the 1990s
During the 1990 and 1991 sessions, I was fiscal director of the Oklahoma House of Representatives, leading a staff of 11 that supported the budget process. From that time until roughly 2005, state budgets followed the same process.
The budget cycle started with a discussion of agency budget requests. These requests helped us understand what was achievable and set legislative spending priorities. House and Senate appropriations committees both held public hearings in which agencies presented budget requests and answered member questions. Members attended faithfully, and agencies took this opportunity seriously.
The Legislature began public action on budget bills early in the session. In some years, every agency got a preliminary budget through an agency-specific appropriations bill. In 1990, all 45 of these bills were passed and signed by the governor by early April.
Remaining budget issues were resolved during the last two months of the session. When additional revenue was available, the leadership of each house allocated available funds to subcommittees. Subcommittees, especially the chairs, had broad discretion as to how to spend their allocation and broad authority to negotiate a subcommittee budget with their counterpart in the other house. In 1990, these agreements were resolved in budget bills assigned to the General Conference Committee on Appropriations. In many cases, bills were discussed and debated in open meetings.
Today’s budget process is faster and less visible to Oklahomans
Since leaving the fiscal staff, I’ve been involved in the budget process as budget director for the Oklahoma Department of Human Services and then as the budget and tax policy analyst here at OK Policy. In that time, I’ve seen a lot of changes in the budget process, which have resulted in taxpayers seeing less of the budgeting process done publicly. State agencies are less involved and less visible; only a few large agencies have budget hearings. The State Senate is taking an important step in the right direction this year, as it will hold budget hearings on most state agencies for the first time in more than a decade. Subcommittees no longer meet publicly to discuss agency budgets. In fact, any involvement of subcommittee members or chairs in budget decisions occurs outside of public view.
Oklahoma’s budget is now prepared behind closed doors by relatively few legislators and rushed through the legislature with little debate and no changes. There are fewer budget bills now than ever, and they are available to the public for much less time. Anecdotally, during the last session, some lawmakers noted that complex budget documents were just being distributed to lawmakers minutes before having to vote on them.
The chart below shows that the time that budget bills are available to public scrutiny has shrunk from a month to weeks to just a couple days. The reasonably open General Conference Committee on Appropriations process has been replaced by the Joint Committee on Appropriations and Budget (JCAB), which merely rubber-stamps budget and related bills.1
Current members did not set out to hide the budget…
Most of the changes in the budget process are the accidental result of decisions made decades ago, sometimes by the voters themselves. The most obvious factor in these changes is limiting legislators to 12 years in office, passed as State Question 632 in 1990. Term limits mean our elected officials cannot build the same level of expertise and political skills as their predecessors. Before term limits, members could serve for 20 years or more to learn about agency budgets and services, and these experienced lawmakers had a deeper understanding of agency budgets and needs.Today, fewer members can build that expertise, so fewer have a real say in the budget process. They also mean that newly appointed appropriations members and chairs have considerably less experience and expertise navigating the complexity of government operations. That’s not a commentary on anybody in this legislature; it’s a recognition of the fact that the state of Oklahoma is a complex $20 billion business that can’t be mastered overnight, particularly given all the other pressures on a legislator’s time.2
The second major factor dates to 1992 when voters approved State Question 640, which requires a supermajority legislative vote or a statewide vote of the people in order to increase taxes. (SQ 640 placed no corresponding control over cutting revenue, which lawmakers have done extensively during the last two decades.) When taken together, this means appropriations committees have fewer resources to allocate alongside increased demands on those resources. Any substantial new funding for shared services now comes from budget cuts to another program or service. Budgeting is now more about shifting funds between agencies rather than building better services.
…but they can reveal it to the public once more
Those state questions are likely to be in place for decades to come, but that doesn’t mean that we have to continue down the path of a less transparent budget process. Legislators have the power to open up the budget process and they would gain from doing so. The State Senate is taking important steps back towards transparency by holding budget hearings for most state agencies this year. If the House joined this effort, the two chambers could join forces so that every agency has an annual opportunity to publicly share its fiscal plans. Another important revision would be making the Legislature subject to the Oklahoma Open Meeting Act, which requires giving the public adequate notice of meeting times, places, and agendas. Open meetings are a fundamental element of transparency and the Legislature applies it to all other state boards and agencies and every local government in Oklahoma. The Legislature’s self-imposed exemption from the Open Meeting Act creates an unnecessary hardship for any Oklahomans who want to follow the actions our leaders are taking.
Our leaders can also restore the processes that worked for decades: publicizing and holding public hearings on all agency budget requests, letting subcommittees make decisions on their assigned budgets, and taking more time for public input and debate on budgets. Ultimately they should join the states that hold public hearings and allow online comments on budgets and other legislation. Decisions affecting the public must both inform and involve the public at every step of the process.
We put our trust in elected leaders. They should return the trust.
Transparency has real value in government; it is essential to the success of a democratic system. It builds trust among members in each chamber, as well as between the branches of government. It builds trust between legislators and their constituents. It helps voters hold their representatives accountable for their votes on specific budgets and programs. It challenges our state agencies to craft proposals that solve our biggest problems, and it challenges our legislators to bring those solutions to reality when Oklahomans support them. In a transparent and democratic political system, we can all trust each other, but we can also verify. That’s how democracy works.
 A review of documents in 1991, and 1996 suggests that general appropriation bills were publicly available for 13 days and 1 day respectively. However, legislative staff were unable to provide OK Policy with paper copies of bills before 1997, so we could not determine when other budget bills were available to the public during that time period.
 Most public attention during the budget process is given to state appropriations, commonly referred to as the “state budget,” which for FY 2021 was about $7.7 billion. However, the state additionally receives funds from the federal government, fees, and state taxes that are earmarked for a specific agency or function. When totaled, these account for the state of Oklahoma being an about $20 billion enterprise.