Tight state budget put education and transportation on the spot

By Randy Krehbiel

Roads and schools sometimes seem like the guns and butter of state government.

Anyone who lived through World War II (when butter was actually rationed) or even the Vietnam era heard all about guns and butter. Every dollar — or, more precisely, unit of input — spent on guns is one less for butter.

And vice versa.

Instead of guns and butter, state governments tend to think in terms of roads and schools. Yes, there are other pressing needs — courts, corrections, public health and welfare — but schools and roads are what constituents call their legislators about.

The point was brought home in recent weeks when, just days after educators, parents and students descended on the Capitol to demand more money for public schools, the state’s road contractors launched a campaign warning the Legislature not to raid highway funds as it contemplates a $611 million budget shortfall.

Want more for education? State funding for transportation has increased 38 percent over the past four years, while state support of public schools has been more or less unchanged over the past five years. One idea being floated, and apparently the one that prompted the ad campaign, is to take money from the county roads and bridges account to help balance the budget.

Want bridges that don’t collapse and highways that don’t wreck your suspension? The money has to come from somewhere, and nobody gets more state and local dollars than education. Common ed is going to get somewhere around $3.5 billion in state and local tax money for operations this year, compared to $661.8 million for transportation.

What’s a core service?

“It’s not really a question of which is going to win,” said Gene Perry of the Oklahoma Policy Institute. “They’re all going to lose because the revenue system doesn’t produce enough.”

Nonsense, says Jonathan Small of the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs.

“There is most definitely enough money to do what government needs to do,” Small said.

“Right now, recurring revenue and state expenditures are at all-time highs,” Small said. “We believe lawmakers have a real opportunity to prioritize spending on core government functions like transportation.

“For those asking about funding for education, with the revenue available, they actually have the opportunity to hold education harmless this year.”

But Perry and Small, and the organizations they represent, agree Oklahoma needs to spend on roads and bridges. They disagree on just about everything else in the discussion, including the extent to which public education — or at least public education as we know it — is a core function of government.

The OCPA views it as a wasteful monopoly that should be privatized, or at least subjected to more robust competition, through school choice. It has considerable influence with Republican legislators who view the education bureaucracy much the same as liberals might view President Eisenhower’s military-industrial complex.

“There is no doubt the state has shown a commitment to education, particularly over the last several decades,” Small said. “I don’t think people are being very intellectually honest if they’re trying to say ‘We’ve got transportation funding on autopilot and that’s going to hurt each area of government.’ I don’t think that considers the whole picture.”

Medical costs, Small said, are the real problem for state budget-makers.

Roads a priority

Transportation, though, has benefited from legislation that guarantees it a roughly $58 million increase from income tax receipts each year. No other area of state government is provided for in that manner.

“It is always a question of priorities,” Perry said. “Oklahoma has prioritized repairing roads and bridges. … When you do that by taking money from income tax revenue, there is less for everybody else.”

Perry and OK Policy, which has the ear of more liberal to moderate legislators, is not arguing that Oklahoma shouldn’t be spending money on roads and bridges. But he is saying it’s difficult to do roads and education — or roads and just about anything else — with the state’s recent and projected revenue.

“We’re working to fix those years of neglect by neglecting other things,” he said.

In other words, Perry says we can have guns AND butter but only if we’re willing to revise the tax code to bring in more revenue.

Small, on the other hand, says we can have both but only if we’re willing to give up the strawberry jam.

“When you’re talking about a $17 billion budget,” he said, “even with the prospects of what some are calling a shortfall, the state is still spending money on losses on golf courses, on rodeos and roping contests, on attempts at space travel, aquariums, and a host of things that aren’t core services of government.”




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