Lawmakers are planning a budget for next year that from most reports looks likely to cut funding for most state agencies while refusing to halt a scheduled tax cut or reign in tax breaks. As some pre-budget spin in defense of these decisions, The Oklahoman editorial board and the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs have pointed to $40 million spent on “swag, advertising, and memberships” as evidence that Oklahoma can afford to reduce taxes further even during a budget shortfall.
It’s worth noting that the source of the $40 million figure is never shared, nor is what they specifically mean by “swag, advertising, and memberships,” even when they put it in quotation marks. But if we take them at their word that this is unnecessary spending, that’s still not an argument to cut taxes again. We can just as easily find examples of how severe under-investment by the state is harming Oklahoma families and the economy.
To list a few:
- Low pay and the growth of unfunded testing mandates is creating an exodus of teachers out of Oklahoma. According to State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister, schools started the year with 1,000 teacher vacancies and had to cancel about 800 classes. College graduates can make $10,000 more as an entry level teacher in neighboring states, creating a constant drain of talented educators from Oklahoma. The lack of qualified applicants for teacher positions has forced many districts to lower their standards, bringing in teachers who have not completed their education to earn a certification. Education officials predict another 2 percent funding cut would lead to the loss of more than 1,700 teachers statewide. Already four Lawton elementary schools will be shut down at the end of the year due to budget cuts.
- The Oklahoma School of Science and Math, which educates some the state’s highest performing students interested in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, has been forced to eliminate one-third of its staff and cancel several classes due to state budget cuts of 22 percent in recent years. With even more cuts on the horizon, Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation President Dr. Stephen Prescott wrote that Oklahoma is “eating our seed corn” by failing to support our most talented STEM students.
- Tuition at Oklahoma’s four-year colleges and universities has increased by $1,192 per year since 2008, as state funding for higher education has dropped by $2,251 per student. That may be a reason why enrollment at Oklahoma colleges and universities fell 10,105 students over the past year. Higher education Chancellor Glen Johnson said funding cuts would put Oklahoma’s degree completion goals at risk, and the state regents said a 2.6 percent reduction would result in the elimination of more than 100 academic courses, 80 faculty positions and more than 55 staff employees. Since education levels are strongly linked to wages in a state, falling behind in college degrees means we are sacrificing our future prosperity far more than what might be gained from another tax cut.
- State prisons are at over 100 percent capacity with staffing of just 60 to 70 percent. Corrections officers and inmates have already been seriously injured or killed due to our neglect. The situation is so dire that Oklahoma House Speaker Jeff Hickman has said we are “one lawsuit away” from a federal takeover of our prisons. While recent reforms show encouraging signs that we may reduce incarceration over the medium- to long-term, they do nothing for the crisis that is happening right now. To save lives and prevent an even more costly federal takeover, this area of government needs more funding.
- Oklahoma’s longstanding, continuing underfunding of mental health care is leaving thousands of Oklahomans without treatment. Mental illness is one of the primary reasons behind homelessness and incarceration in Oklahoma, both of which are very costly to taxpayers over the long-term. Even if mental health gets flat funding this year, an estimated 14,722 Oklahomans will lose services, adding to the 6 in 10 adults with mental health problems who aren’t getting treatment.
- Due to increasing enrollment and rising costs, Medicaid needs more dollars just to continue its existing services for Oklahomans. Even flat funding for Medicaid would mean more cuts to reimbursements to health care providers, and struggling rural clinics and rural hospitals are losing money and facing closure, which can be devastating to a small community. As one rural health researcher pointed out, “When a hospital closes, the physicians leave. A lot of the health care infrastructure leaves. Sometimes the local businesses will leave … the schools suffer. There’s a whole multiplier effect that really can devastate some towns.”
- Oklahoma’s public health lab is at risk of losing accreditation due to its aging, poorly maintained facility. A new lab is estimated to cost $49 million, and without it, Oklahoma could be forced to send thousands of tests for hospitals and medical facilities to an out-of-state lab. That is likely to mean delays and added costs for the state, as well as a loss of expertise within Oklahoma on how to prevent dangerous epidemics.
- Cuts to the Oklahoma Supreme Court will mean they are longer be able to pass down any funds to county clerk offices. In some counties, as many as half of the county clerk positions have been funded by the state Supreme Court, and loss of funds will mean layoffs and significantly longer wait times for Oklahomans who have any business with a county clerk, from getting a marriage license to obtaining real estate records. Cuts to the Supreme Court also threaten OSCN.net, a website where Oklahomans can access public court records. The site is visited by the public more than 500,000 times a day, and it is used by the media, businesses, and other for conducting background checks.
These cuts are just scratching the surface of a large and growing structural deficit in Oklahoma that prevents us from funding core services at the levels needed by Oklahoma families in both good years and bad.
Is there waste in government? Sure, just like in any large organization, and we should do our best to root it out and direct that funding to more useful areas. That’s not what lawmakers are doing.
Instead, Oklahoma is slashing important services and allowing wasteful tax breaks that cost many times more than $40 million to multiply and grow. Oklahomans are wiser than that — a majority of registered voters in the state think we should prioritize education funding over more tax cuts and at least delay tax cuts that are happening during a budget shortfall. So far, state budget writers don’t seem to have gotten the message.