Years of unrestored budget cuts have kept vital state agencies underfunded (Capitol Update)

The closing of the Michelin tire manufacturing facility, a long-time employer in Ardmore, has caused a stir of activity including a meeting of Senate President Pro Tempore Greg Treat’s Select Committee on Business Retention and Economic Development. The facility, scheduled to close at the end of 2025, will result in the loss of 1,400 jobs. The committee called in Lt. Gov. Matt Pinnell and the Oklahoma Department of Commerce (ODOC) to see if any lessons could be learned from the closing.

The committee also heard from Sen. Jerry Alvord, R-Wilson, who represents the Ardmore area and Bill Murphy, CEO of the Ardmore Development Authority. Most of the discussion surrounded the organization of the ODOC. Pinnell said Gov. Stitt had directed him to look at the structure of ODOC, looking at other states. Pinnell said he would be working with the legislature on legislation structuring the department for branding on retention and business development like the focus in other states.

A statement by ODOC Interim Director Hopper Smith jumped out at me. During the discussion about the organization of Oklahoma’s business retention and recruiting efforts, Smith said the Department hopes to increase the number of individuals in the state who work with existing businesses and communities across the state from six to nine. Smith said this is the same number that existed before a budget cut forced a reduction to six.

This is a problem that can likely be found throughout Oklahoma state government. During the decade downturn in the state’s economy, state agencies were hollowed out. When the economy turned around, the governor insisted on agencies submitting flat budget requests to the legislature and “saving” the increased revenue in various accounts. Then he used the “savings” to demand tax cuts. 

Some of the previous budget cuts have never been restored. The legislature ignored the flat budget requests in some agencies and, for the most part, refused large tax cuts. But it is difficult to know what agencies need to provide services if they don’t bring the information forward. But then when something happened and questions were asked, it came to light in this case that one-third of the ODOC representatives working with businesses and communities across the state have never been restored.

A similar issue arose during a meeting of the House Tourism Committee last week. Oklahoma Tourism and Recreation Department (OTRD) Director Shelley Zumwalt described her department as “going from crisis to crisis.” During a previous revenue failure money earmarked for the OTRD’s travel and promotion and deferred maintenance fund was capped, and the cap has never been restored. 

Zumwalt referred to Oklahoma’s 32 state parks as “the cornerstone” of the state’s tourism industry, driving dollars, jobs, and development. She said the total investment essential for continued operation of Oklahoma’s state parks provided by OTRD was $350 million. Immediate funding of $50 million would allow the agency to address critical maintenance needs over the next year.

It may be a good idea to discuss reorganizing state government, but legislators might choose instead to adequately fund the government we have. Doing more with less has limits.  


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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