Now what?

Governor Mary FallinThis is an expanded and edited version of a column that appeared in the Journal Record

As expected, Oklahoma voters have re-elected Governor Mary Fallin to a second term. Backed by a strong Republican majority in the legislature, the Governor will have another four years to put her policies in place.

Yet even those voters who were paying attention during the campaign can be forgiven for lacking a clear sense of the Governor’s second-term agenda.

Last month, the Tulsa World provided Governor Fallin space for 600 words to make the case for her re-election. She wrote at length in praise of her accomplishments in her first term and against the policies of her opponent, Rep. Joe Dorman. But in 29 sentences, exactly one spoke to the future:

In the next four years, we need to continue to reinvest economic gains into K-12 education, give our teachers pay raises, and ensure our children are receiving the top-notch education they deserve.

Similarly, her campaign website trumpeted her first-term record but was silent on what policies or ideas she might pursue next.

So the Governor returns to power without a clear and specific mandate for her second term. Yet, in addition to the education issues mentioned in her article that served as a main campaign issue, Oklahoma faces no shortage of opportunities for strong leadership to tackle urgent and long-standing problems. Here are five areas calling out for action:

  • Structural Budget Deficit: Oklahoma faces a widening gap between the cost of providing basic public services like education, corrections, and health care, and the tax revenues we collect to fund them. The state budget never fully recovered from the last downturn of 2008-10, and even with a strong state economy, we are confronting budget shortfalls that have forced deeper cuts across broad swaths of state government. With Oklahoma having enacted the deepest cuts in state support for education; with our correctional facilities facing critical staffing shortages; with our Medicaid program needing considerably more funding to stave off another round of cuts; with our child welfare system falling short of court-mandated goals, it should be clear that our budget problems are deep-rooted and longstanding. The Governor should lead a serious review of what we realistically expect state government to do, how much it will cost, and how we are going to pay for it.
  • Tax Credits: While the need to reform the state’s special-interest tax breaks has been widely acknowledged by policymakers and outside experts in recent years, meaningful action has been thwarted. Most notably, the Governor and legislature last year squandered the chance to curb unnecessary and unaffordable tax breaks for the oil and gas industry. Still, putting in place formal mechanisms to evaluate tax breaks and limiting or eliminating those that cannot be justified remains a priority for key legislators and statewide officeholders, and is a vital part of any effort to get the state’s fiscal house in order.
  • Criminal Justice: Two years ago, when Oklahoma passed legislation associated with the Justice Reinvestment Initiative (JRI), hopes were high that Oklahoma would take a new approach on criminal justice issues, away from policies that have given us sky-high incarceration rates without reducing crime and recidivism. Unfortunately, the reform process languished after Gov. Fallin refused funds to help implement the law. A recent report made at the request of the Governor’s office lays out a path forward for finishing the JRI process and building on reforms. Hopefully Governor Fallin will take the report’s recommendations to heart and can find partners in the Legislature willing to show the same leadership.
  • Health Care Coverage: In rejecting federal Affordable Care Act funds to expand health insurance coverage to low-income adults two years ago, Gov. Fallin promised state-based solutions to improve Oklahoma’s health. A study by the Leavitt Partners commissioned by the Governor recommended building on our successful Insure Oklahoma public-private partnership to cover a large number of the uninsured. Governor Fallin should follow the Leavitt recommendations and the paths of Republican Governors in Iowa, Utah, Pennsylvania and elsewhere by developing our own plan that would bring home federal dollars to expand coverage to Oklahomans in need and offer relief to our struggling health care providers.
  • Economic Opportunity: Despite Oklahoma’s low overall unemployment rate and strong energy sector, our economy continues to leave far too many Oklahomans behind. One in six Oklahomans have incomes below the poverty level and many more earn too little to consistently meet their needs for food and shelter, much less to save for the future.  Economic hardship is especially prevalent for racial minorities, those with disabilities, and those without at least some college education. The Governor’s economic and social policies should recognize the plight of low-income working Oklahomans and focus on initiatives that expand access to higher education, training, work supports, health care, and savings for those striving to climb up the economic ladder.

Oklahoma’s voters have granted Mary Fallin four more years. Her job isn’t done, and ours is not either.

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Former Executive Director David Blatt joined OK Policy in 2008 and served as its Executive Director from 2010 to 2019. He previously served as Director of Public Policy for Community Action Project of Tulsa County and as a budget analyst for the Oklahoma State Senate. He has a Ph.D. in political science from Cornell University and a B.A. from the University of Alberta. David has been selected as Political Scientist of the Year by the Oklahoma Political Science Association, Local Social Justice Champion by the Dan Allen Center for Social Justice, and Public Citizen of the Year by the National Association of Social Workers.

2 thoughts on “Now what?

  1. good luck but you better talk to the unwise voters that voted her back in they are the ones who cant go to the trouble of fact finding on what she votes against I have lost faith in the voters in Oklahoma they do not grasp whats happening to America and Obama his doing all he can alone to help the people , and the voters prefer lies over truth so fallin will keep taking and working people will keep paying for it
    thank you Jackie masters

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