GOP-Controlled Legislature Doing Its Utmost
To Starve State Government Into Prosperity
By State Rep. Ben Loring
MIAMI, OK (20 January 2017) – There is no secret to the fact that the State of Oklahoma will have another tough year, budgetwise. The most popular culprit to blame this crisis on is the price of oil, over which we have no control. While that is part of the problem, the breadth and depth of the problem is not that simple.
For years the majority party has claimed the state government had a spending problem, while the minority party maintained Oklahoma has an income problem. In my opinion, both are somewhat correct. Our current budget hole – somewhere around a billion dollars (give or take a hundred million) – is the product of a decade of slashing taxes, mostly for the benefit of the wealthiest. Interestingly, the cumulative effect of those tax cuts now amounts to about a billion dollars every year.
Our budget deficit is also the product of continuing to give away hundreds of millions of dollars to oil companies and other large corporations in a corporate welfare system with no accountability. The Legislature is directly responsible for these policies and has absolute ownership of our current problem. In addition, the Legislature has been playing budget games and utilizing one-time gimmicks to somewhat hide the extent of the problem from the public, and those games and gimmicks also make things more difficult each succeeding year to address Oklahoma’s vital needs.
As one example of those games, last year the budget was “balanced” in part, by issuing bonds of $200 million (i.e., new state debt was created) for highways, which then allowed the Legislature to allocate $200 million less to the Department of Transportation. It was a wash for the highways and gave the Legislature $200 million more to spend in other areas. While this may have been technically legal, it certainly violated the spirit of Oklahoma’s constitutional requirement that we have a balanced budget. Now the state owes $200 million that we have to pay off, together with interest, which means we will have less money to spend this budget year, and succeeding years, to address Oklahoma’s vast needs.
Another gimmick used last year was to fund the Department of Human Services, not for the full year but for only 10 months. That means as soon as the session starts next month the DHS will be knocking at the Legislature’s door, saying, “Excuse us, but we need some more money” — $42 million, we’ve been told. But here is the real rub: every dollar the state cuts the DHS translates to an even greater loss, because it also means the loss of federal matching dollars. Child abuse and neglect and all the other problems DHS deals with remain huge problems in Oklahoma, but we continue to undermine the very people we have placed in the trenches to deal with those problems.
Then, of course, the issue with the most interest throughout the state is how are we going to get more money to our teachers and other employees who have not gotten a raise in years? It is ridiculous that a teacher in Oklahoma, with a bachelor’s degree, after working 11 years for a school system, will still make a little less than a brand-new employee at Quik Trip who has only a high-school diploma. And some legislators are scratching their heads as to why we have such a huge teacher shortage?!? This is not an issue of just not cutting education funding further, but how can the Legislature come up with new and additional money to help fix the problem?
Then we have the prison system with antiquated, overcrowded and understaffed facilities. As an example, the prison at Taft is more than 100 years old and has almost twice as many inmates as it is rated to hold. In fact, many of our DOC buildings are at or near 100 years in age, and it will cost literally billions of dollars of additional money to fix or replace these crumbling structures. In addition, just like our teachers, Oklahoma correctional officers make far less than the national and even the regional average. So was anyone surprised when the U.S. Bureau of Justice just came out with their study showing that Oklahoma has the second-highest prison homicide rate in the nation? That is behind Maine, and the DOJ said their figures are unreliable because they have such a small sample size. More additional money that Oklahoma needs.
And we could go on talking about other core functions of government, like our court system with the judiciary, the district attorneys and the public defenders being overworked and underfunded. How about Oklahoma’s broken healthcare system, with yet another rural hospital (Atoka County Medical Center) recently filing for bankruptcy? Any additional money to help our underfunded mental health system? And yet the Oklahoma Legislature wants to continue to cut taxes for the wealthiest Oklahomans. I have many friends in agriculture and I can assure you there is not a single rancher (still in business) who believes he can starve his herd into prosperity. But that is what the Legislature wants to do to this state.
By the way, the state just released the December revenue figures, this time being 12.3% below estimates and 9.3% below collections for December of the preceding year. Altogether, for the first six months of this fiscal year (FY-17), the General Revenue Fund is $66 million, or 2.7%, below the estimate and $209.1 million, or 8%, below FY-16 collections (which was a horrible year for the state). So let’s just keep cutting those taxes for millionaires and keep giving away millions to the corporations and we might even beat Kansas and all the other broke states controlled by the same majority party in the race to the bottom!
Psalm 14:5-6 They (evildoers) have good reason, then, to fear; God is with the company of the just. They would crush the hopes of the poor, but the poor have the LORD as their refuge.