Lawmakers to state agencies: “Don’t tell us what Oklahoma needs. Tell us what we can cut.” (Capitol Updates)

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.

Photo by Becky Stern / CC BY-SA 2.0
Photo by Becky Stern / CC BY-SA 2.0

The governor’s budget folks along with legislative appropriations leaders have been meeting recently with various state agencies to warn them about the upcoming budget problems for the next couple of years. The agencies are being encouraged to draft their budget requests realistically in view of the likelihood of large budget cuts. Agency budget requests are due to be delivered to the Office of Management and Enterprise Services by October 1st. No one actually knows what the budget hole will be next year, but predictions are ranging from $600 million to $1.2 billion. This is on top of the last several years of cuts for many agencies.

This is unusual. In the past, agencies have drafted their October 1 budget requests based on the perceived needs of their agencies to accomplish their duties. The governor then takes those requests and crafts a budget based on the December estimate of future revenues that has been certified by the State Board of Equalization. Normally the requests far exceed certified revenue, and the governor makes choices about what can be done within the available revenue. Once the governor submits her budget to the legislature the following February, it appropriates funding for the next fiscal year based upon negotiations between the agencies, the governor and legislators.

So this year, in view of what is apparently shaping up to be an alarming loss of revenue for next year, legislative appropriations leaders and the governor’s budget folks are trying to get a jump on the process. This presents an interesting dilemma for the agency directors and their staffs. It gives them the opportunity to choose their own poison in the form of participating in the planning for crippling budget cuts. At least they will have an early opportunity for realistic input. On the other hand, if the agencies never have the opportunity to tell what they actually need in their budget request, when is that going to happen? Submitting a budget proposing cuts may leave the impression with the legislature and governor that silence, regarding needs, is consent.

These meetings are a way of saying, “don’t bother asking.” Or, stated another way, requests for increases, or even level funding, will not be met with a friendly response. At the end of the day, there has to be a reckoning. The budget has to be balanced. Is it a waste of time and effort to have a real discussion about the needs of state government – even if you know the needs won’t be met? Probably these meetings are intended to introduce an element of realism to the budget requests, not to squelch an honest discussion of the agencies’ needs. But the unintended consequence may be just that.

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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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