Senate leaders last week shared their intention to make the annual budget process more transparent. This is a welcome first step towards making this vital process more inclusive and democratic.
The Senate appropriations subcommittee members earlier this month began analyzing agency budgets and program performance measures in open meetings along with a more concrete timeline to get budgets published in March.
This is less plowing new ground and more like following practices and protocols that were already in place but hadn’t necessarily been followed.
In recent years, Oklahoma’s budget bills typically have been the very last items to be discussed in the waning weeks of the legislative session. This has left little time to review, evaluate, and publicly discuss the budget.
Some years, lawmakers have received budget bills — often collectively, hundreds of pages long — that were so hot off the press that the paper was still warm. By that point, only a handful of lawmakers and staff members had seen the contents of the bills, and they were voted on within a few hours. It doesn’t have to be this way.
An Oklahoma Policy Institute analysis showed that, during the 2021 legislative session, Oklahoma only had three days between the public unveiling of the multi-billion-dollar budget and the governor’s final signature. The average state deliberated about their budget for 82 days. (You can find our report at OKPolicy.org/transparency.)
Senate Pro Tempore Greg Treat and Appropriations Chair Sen. Roger Thompson are to be commended for their commitment to correcting this issue. To truly change direction will also require a similar commitment from their counterparts in the state House.
One key element will be ensuring that state budgets adequately fund the shared programs and services that meet the needs of all Oklahomans. During the past few budget cycles, agency heads have been asked to keep their budgets flat. This means as population and inflation increase, today’s budget doesn’t stretch as far to meet growing demand. Agencies must be able to honestly discuss and request their needs.
To remedy this, lawmakers should be implementing a comprehensive, needs-based budget analysis so Oklahomans have a greater say about how their tax dollars can be best invested to propel our state forward.
At the end of the day, any steps towards making the budget process more public should be welcomed enthusiastically. However, we must recognize that much more work can be done.
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NOTE: This column originally appeared in the Journal Record on Dec. 14, 2023