‘Robbing Peter to pay Peter’ (Capitol Updates)

robberSteve 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 find past Capitol Updates archived  on his website.

An interesting debate has developed on whether the $140.8 million that was withheld from state services in FY-16 should now be viewed as “one-time” money if it is spent on a teacher pay raise as suggested by the governor. Those opposed to Governor Fallin’s proposal for a special session have called it one-time money. The governor says it is not one-time money because the revenue was actually received last year, and there’s no reason to assume the $140.8 million will not come in again this year. It was impounded last year because the Director of OMES determined the action would be prudent to protect against overspending. The governor says if the money is re-allocated to a teacher pay raise a new $140.8 million will be available to continue the pay raise when it is received in the following year.

Actually, whether the $140.8 million is one-time money or available on a continuing basis for the teacher pay raise depends on whether you want to permanently take it away from the services to which it was originally appropriated. If the mid-year cuts that were made to state agencies that ultimately generated the $140.8 million become the new starting point for those agency budgets, then the money will be available for continued appropriation to the teachers. But if the Legislature begins next year’s budget assuming the $140.8 is actually needed by the agencies from which it was withheld to provide needed services, then the money is “one-time” money so far as the teacher pay raise is concerned.

“The question is really whether you want to make permanent the agency cuts in order to continue the teacher pay raise.”

The question is really whether you want to make permanent the agency cuts in order to continue the teacher pay raise. I don’t see Governor Fallin winning that debate. If state services were not already reeling from huge cuts the past few years, maybe. But that’s not the case. DHS announced last week it is going to need a $55 million supplemental appropriation just to get through the current year without making cuts to programs it just can’t make. Returning $16.5 million that was withheld as part of the $140.8 million would make a nice start on that, but not if it has been spent on the teacher pay raise. Other agencies like Corrections, Mental Health and the Healthcare Authority will likely struggle if the cuts are made permanent.

So far as education is concerned, $40 million of the $140.8 million was withheld from education. Presumably a good part of that was already being used for teacher salaries as well as other operating expenses for schools. In effect, re-allocating the money would be robbing Peter to pay Peter. It seems that both the teachers and the school districts are opposed to the idea. They’re hoping for passage of SQ 779 to add more money to the pot. Current polling apparently says 62 percent of the public supports SQ 779. Truthfully, that’s not much of a margin if there is well-funded opposition to the question.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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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