Lawmakers need truthful, complete information to make agency appropriation decisions (Capitol Update)

There’s an interesting dynamic emerging between the governor and the legislature regarding next year’s budget. Usually state agencies are free to make budget requests based, within realistic limits, on what they feel is needed to accomplish their duties and, if funds are available, to increase services. In preparation for the session, agencies appear before the appropriations committees to explain and justify their budget requests. Depending on available revenue, the legislature will decide which, if any, programs deserve either cuts or additional funding. This is done with input from the governor and his staff because, at the end of the day, the governor has the right to sign or veto the appropriations measures.

But Gov. Stitt has altered the process this year. According to reports from some agency directors and the governor’s office, agencies have been told to hold requests for budget increases to below 2 percent. It didn’t take long for appropriations committee members to sniff this out. After years of cuts and hollowing out of some agencies, it is obvious to appropriators that a 2 percent increase will not permit some agencies to perform their functions satisfactorily. As one subcommittee chairman put it, legislators know they are not receiving a “real budget request.” A good example is the Oklahoma State University medical school, which lacks the equipment to teach robotics to students learning to become surgeons. Yet, the director kept his budget increase request to 2 percent and failed to ask for the $4.9 million necessary for needed robotics equipment.

At this point, approaching halfway through the fiscal year, no one knows for sure what the next budget year will look like. Overall year-to-date revenue collections, which is the money legislators will have to appropriate for next fiscal year, are about 1 percent above last year, although November receipts were slightly down. The final available funds won’t be known until next February when the Equalization Board meets and certifies available revenue for FY 2021. But for the legislative appropriations process, it doesn’t really matter for now precisely what the numbers will be. Legislators need a true picture of the functioning and needs of the agencies they are responsible for funding.

Judging from their comments, several legislators are suspecting that the beginning of this budget year is a continuation of the “hide-the-ball” approach they felt they were getting from the governor at the end of last session. Appropriators must depend on the executive agency directors to give them truthful, complete information about needs. Without that, they cannot make intelligent funding decisions. In the end, it may indeed be that the average increase in agency spending is 2 percent. But it may also be that some agencies need a 10 percent increase while others need none. The governor has every right to expect input into the appropriations process. But many believe restraining the budget information going to legislators up front is a step too far.


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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