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.
When Republicans took full control of the legislature, both House and Senate, they began a process of dismantling the use of line items in state appropriations measures. The policy took full root in 2010 when Republican governor Mary Fallin was elected. The new legislative majority felt it was not their place to dictate to the executive department, particularity through line-item budgeting, how to spend the appropriated dollars. They also accused Democrats of using line items to promote favored programs over others. In sum the mantra was to give the executive agencies flexibility in the use of funds in the name of efficiency.
Over the years legislators were burned on occasion when agencies chose to eliminate or substantially reduce programs that members felt were high priority. As time went on, more line items began to appear in appropriations measures, and this year a substantial increase in directed spending has occurred. This is likely the result of a realization of the need for legislative oversight of spending and the obligation of the legislature to determine the policy on how appropriated dollars will be used. After all, legislators catch the blame when the public is unhappy about program cuts or wasteful spending.
Social service agencies are a prime example of the more stringent legislative direction. The Department of Mental Health was directed to provide a 3 percent increase in psychiatric inpatient, substance abuse residential, psychologist, and agency-based therapy provider rates. DMH was also directed to use $4 million of its funding increase for needs assessments that I believe is related to criminal justice reform. Legislators also directed any federal funding increases to be used for maintaining current levels of services, addressing as needed the above rate increases and “addressing caps in therapy and case management services imposed during the preceding twenty-four-month period.”
The Department of Human Services, with its $34 million increase was told to use $4.6 million to restore adoption subsidy payments and foster care rates to the levels authorized by the Legislature in 2017, but later cut, and to use $960,000 to increase the salaries of child welfare specialist positions to fulfill the obligations of year five of the Pinnacle Plan; $2 million was directed for services for persons with developmental disabilities to reduce the size of the DDSD waiting list — an important start to a tragically longstanding problem. In addition legislators mandated a 5 percent increase in foster care provider rates, a 7 percent increase in provider rates for child welfare contract group homes, a 5 percent increase in therapeutic foster care provider rates, a 7 percent rate increase in provider rates for the Advantage program and a 7 percent increase for Developmental Disabilities services in-home supports for adults and children and state-funded group home, state-funded assisted living and all state-funded employment and vocational services direct care provider rates.
The Oklahoma Health Care Authority was directed to grant a 3 percent increase to long-term care facilities (nursing homes) and a 2 percent increase to all other Sooner Care providers. It is doubtful that all these funding decisions are the same as would have been made by the agencies if the decisions were left to them as in the past few years. The priorities reflect the pressures and input from interested parties and the judgment of legislators as produced by a legislative as opposed to an agency process. I’m biased, but I think that’s as it should be. Legislators are elected to make the budget decisions.