What's at stake: the toll of budget cuts

Another budget year, the same sad story: The combination of tax cuts and the recession results in severe cuts to public services.

Over the past two years, most agencies have lost 15 percent or more of their funding. Even though state appropriations as a share of the economy is at a 30 year low, next year’s shortfall is projected at $500 million. The Governor’s proposed budget for next year would eliminate some agencies and take another 3 to 5 percent from the rest.

Last year we surveyed some of what’s been lost. Here’s an update:

  • With personnel costs making up 93 percent of its budget, more cuts to the Public Safety Department will mean furloughs and possibly laying off troopers. The Department already has 110 fewer employees than 2 years ago, and more than half of the drivers’ license testing sites across the state have been closed. A portion of these funds are being replaced by increasing the fee to reinstate a driver’s license.
  • Oklahoma prisons are at 99 percent capacity with 8,000 more inmates and fewer staff than in 1995, which creates a dangerous situation where one officer can be supervising as many as 276 offenders. County jails have gone over capacity, with 1,348 state prisoners backed up in county jails at the end of 2010. Community sentencing, sex offender and substance abuse programs, and education and job training programs have all been cut or eliminated. Family visitation was cut to two weekends per month.
  • To prevent additional furloughs, the legislature authorized taking $5.3 million from the Oklahoma Correctional Industries operating fund, which will end programs that make a profit and provide job training for inmates, reducing recidivism rates by one half compared to inmates not in the program. Cutting the program also leaves prisoners idle, which compounds problems of overcrowding. Longtime Board of Corrections member David Henneke said he is “very fearful something drastic or bad will happen, and we can end up with injuries and people hurt.”
  • A projected shortfall of $7 to $9 million in the court system next year will mean layoffs of special judges, deputy court clerks and secretary-bailiffs. It also means inflated fees for anyone in need of court services as they increase to partially make up for inadequate tax dollars.
  • Reductions in mental health services are putting more of the burden of handling the mentally ill on state and local police. From 2009 to 2010, calls for police to help the mentally ill increased by 50 percent. Police spending hours to transport mental health patients across the state to find treatment. In the past 18 months, the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services has eliminated164 mental health and substance abuse beds. Even before the cuts, Oklahoma was ranked 46th in the nation for mental health services.
  • Oklahoma’s county health departments have begun charging $25 for flu shots because they can no longer afford to offer the vaccinations for free.
  • The Health Department has been pared back to the point where it is unable to sustain further across the board cuts without imperiling public health and epidemic disease response. Health Commissioner Terry Cline stated if the agency is cut more he would have to eliminate the Office of Child Abuse Prevention, which oversees 21 different provider contracts and is a primary source of services aimed at preventing abuse and neglect in families at risk for such outcomes. Cuts already implemented include $200k cut from Tobacco Use Prevention services, about a thousand people no longer screened for HIV in Oklahoma County Jail, 880 fewer Hepatitis A and B vaccines, $28k taken from five community-based teen pregnancy prevention projects, and more.
  • Buildings owned by the state are in need of more than $200 million in repairs. That includes $90 million in repairs at the state Capitol, which has rusted water pipes, some electrical wires insulated by cloth, and water leaking into the building.
  • The House voted to suspend the Art in Public Places Act, which dedicates 1.5 percent of the construction budget on nonhighway projects to public art. The suspension will not improve what is available for appropriations since these projects are already largely funded through bonds.
  • The Tourism and Recreation Department is closing 7 state parks, including Adair State Park in Stilwell, Beaver Dunes in Beaver, Boggy Depot in Atoka, Brushy Lake in Sallisaw, Heavener Runestone in Heavener, Lake Eucha in Jay, and Wah-Sha-She in Copan.
  • Class sizes are going up across the state. At Tulsa Public Schools, elementary and secondary school class sizes rose by more than 8 percent, and other districts in the area saw class size increase of more than 5 percent. Tulsa Public Schools cut 225 teaching positions, while Union, Broken Arrow and Jenks cut 53, 32 and 22 positions, respectively. The 3 percent cuts proposed for next year will mean even more teachers laid off. In Norman, the school board voted to freeze pay and benefits for all district employees. School districts everywhere are cutting back in ways large and small, such as an end to field trips in Washoe County Schools.
  • Appropriations for Oklahoma community colleges have decreased almost 9 percent while enrollment is up 34 percent over the last decade. At the same time, cuts in federal aid through Pell Grants threaten to take away hundreds of Oklahoma students’ access to a college education.

These are just a sample of the toll that successive rounds of budget cuts are taking on our state. Obviously some wasteful spending can and has been eliminated, but the examples above show that we have gone far beyond simply eliminating waste. With state leaders ready to cut taxes again and refusing to consider any ways to substantially increase revenue, we are looking at serious and lasting harm to the core public services that promote our health, education and safety. Refusing to pay for a solution to dire public needs today only makes them more difficult and expensive to solve in the future.

For OK Policy’s most recent information and materials on the state budget, click here.


Gene Perry worked for OK Policy from 2011 to 2019. He is a native Oklahoman and a citizen of the Cherokee Nation. He graduated from the University of Oklahoma with a B.A. in history and an M.A. in journalism.

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