Though public budgeting is rarely considered exciting, it’s an essential element in making democracy work. Budgets turn our vision of community into reality and lay the groundwork for a strong economy by making investments in our education, health, safety, and infrastructure. Because budgets affect us all, both immediately and into the future, they should be made in public view with public input. While most states show this is easily accomplished, Oklahoma’s leaders neither inform nor engage the public in their budget deliberations.
While other legislatures have spent months working on the budget, Oklahomans spent months waiting to see one
Oklahoma is a slow starter among the states in this year’s budget process. The chart below divides every state’s legislative session into three parts. The light blue bar shows how many calendar days of the legislative session passed before a budget bill was introduced. The dark blue bar shows how long the legislature was working on the budget, from the day of introduction to the day a final budget was sent to the governor. The red bar shows how many days remained in the session after the budget was completed.
Oklahoma lawmakers announced a budget agreement on May 13, just over two weeks from the close of session. However, supporting budget bills weren’t introduced until May 17 — 105 days into session. Even then, those bills were added to the legislature’s Joint Committee on Appropriations and Budget (JCAB) agenda just hours before its meeting and the majority of the bills were added to the agenda as shell bills with only titles but no content.
Looking at other states, only three other states had not started budget deliberations by that day. Of the states that had introduced budgets, only six took more than 75 days to get started and the average time to introduce a budget was 37 days. In fact four states introduced budgets before the session started.
Budget transparency requires a relatively short light blue bar (length of time before budget bill introduction) and a long dark blue one (length of time for legislative consideration) to provide adequate time for public review and input. Oklahoma’s budget timeline will have one of the longest light blue bars and one of the shortest dark blue bars, meaning our leaders are establishing the budget in private and leaving little time for review by the public or even their fellow lawmakers.
Effective budget transparency is practiced across party lines and across the country. Democrat-controlled Washington and Republican-controlled Texas have both been working on their budgets for more than 100 days. Within our region, four states introduced budgets within 10 days of the start of sessions, two between 10 and 50 days, and Democrat-controlled Colorado and Republican-controlled Oklahoma took more than 80 days.
Budgets are hard, but that doesn’t mean they have to be hidden
Legislative leaders say it takes time to reach agreement between two houses of the legislature and the governor. They are right. It is hard to formulate a budget that can meet everyone’s goals. Legislators and governors have to balance their own policy preferences with the priorities of voters, interest groups, state agencies, and campaign donors. However, there are benefits to working out these disagreements in public. That way, all parties involved — and more importantly the voters they work for — can see what issues are at stake, who is supporting which positions, and how they reach agreement.
Most state legislatures air and resolve their budget differences through a regular legislative process. This process starts with committee work, where members debate and amend budgets. Some committees hold votes on specific changes, such as Louisiana’s decision to reduce funding for regulating charitable games. When committee work is finished, many states publish a summary comparing the committee’s recommendation to the original budget. Even states that, like Oklahoma, delay budgeting in public have dozens to hundreds of public meetings to work on the budget in public view. By skipping public meetings and delaying the budget’s reveal, Oklahoma lawmakers rob themselves and their voters of important public discussion.
For democracy to work, legislators must go on the record
If a particular issue is important to us, say getting care for an aging parent, competitive pay for teachers, or protecting children from neglect and abuse, we want to know how our representatives vote on that issue. The only way this is accomplished is through public floor votes on amendments that would increase or decrease specific budget items.
There are a number of ways for states to do this, but Oklahoma does none of them. Many states allow members to introduce budget amendments when the budget is debated on the house floor. In these states, voters can see where every state legislator stands on issues that matter to them, like the rates the state pays to long-term care providers, whether to fund transportation or services for the developmentally disabled, or shifting funding from Medicaid to higher education. Some legislatures, including our neighbor to the south, reserve full days or more to debate and vote individually on floor amendments. By the end of the day, every voter in such states can know how their representatives voted on the issues that are important to them.
Budget transparency is easy when it is made a priority
Budgets reflect our values and shape our future; they should be made in public, just like every important legislative action. When it comes to budget development, most states do in public what Oklahoma does in private. By doing so, these states offer their citizens a more visible, organized, and democratic process than Oklahomans get.
The map below, updated from an earlier article, shows that while Oklahomans can’t see the components of their state budget while nearly every other state is moving through the legislative process of committee and floor action, as well as the public negotiations between the two legislative chambers and the governor. We should expect as much from our government as any other American taxpayer gets from theirs, so let’s ask Oklahoma lawmakers to move toward a more open budget process starting next year.