Oklahoma Colleges, Universities Face Huge State Budget Cut

Image of OSU Edmon Low Library

A proposed, draconian 15.92 percent cut to higher education in Oklahoma over last year will lead to costly student tuition increases and severe cuts in the budgets of our colleges and universities, cuts that will impact state residents for years to come.

Apparently conservative legislative leaders and Gov. Mary Fallin have a tentative, last-minute budget plan that spares the K-12 educational system from more cuts for now, but higher education is, once again, facing reduced state appropriations in a major way. This follows a national trend among many states to cut higher education appropriations, which then leads to higher tuition and massive cuts.

The combination of recent cuts to public K-12 education and higher education, and the new proposed cuts, reveal a state government that has lost its way in a morass of conservative, anti-learning ideology. Do a majority of voting Oklahomans still have a paranoid distrust of book learning, a distrust hammered into their brains by Southern Baptist ministers and other right-wing religious folks? We’ll find out, again, in the November elections. For many years, the answer to that question has been a resounding “yes.”

I’ve grappled with this anti-education bias in Oklahoma for decades. It’s definitely not entirely a right-wing phenomenon, but conservative politicians, operatives and media outlets have polished it and perfected it into “policy” over the years. The policy perpetuates itself. The anti-education policy, pushed for years by organizations like the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs and The Oklahoman newspaper, leads to our low college graduation rate, which then means less electorate support for education funding in general.

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November Is Coming

The Oklahoman editorial board went way too easy in a commentary Sunday criticizing legislators for conducting the state’s most important business behind “closed doors” and during the final few days of the session.

The editorial, titled “Lack of budgeting transparency hurting OK legislators’ cause,” makes the overall point that “. . . lack of transparency means many citizens and businesses are now being blindsided by apparently last-minute tax and spending plans.” This is true enough, but the editorial doesn’t even begin to hold conservative legislators responsible or accountable for the financial mess they’ve created.

Instead, the editorial makes some initial light criticisms and then lists some of the taxation and revenue issues the legislature has addressed, leaving out crucial information.

For example, it should be noted that some measures to increase revenues are actually estimates. If the revenues come under the estimates, then starting after July 1, when the new fiscal year begins, the state could experience another series of revenue failures like this year that would impact all agencies. Even if we can escape with initial small cuts what happens if fossil fuels prices don’t rise significantly? July 1, 2016 to July 1, 2017 has the potential to be even worse here economically than last year.

The main issue, of course, is that there’s still no overall budget for the state, which faces a $1.3 billion budget shortfall. Schools, colleges and universities don’t know what types of cuts, if any, are in store for them. (Higher education leaders certainly expect cuts.) Some hospitals, nursing homes and other health-related organizations that accept Medicaid payments don’t know if they can even stay open with the large cuts that have been discussed.

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Oklahoma Should Accept New Federal Dollars For Medicaid Expansion

Image of Capitol and church

(Last-minute shenanigans by Oklahoma conservative legislators at the state Capitol: The legislature passed an obviously unconstitutional bill making it illegal for doctors to perform abortions in Oklahoma, and legislators introduced a bill that would force schools to provide separate restroom and shower facilities to students who object on religious grounds to sharing them with transgendered students. Another bill criticizes the Obama administration for its recent statement on ensuring transgendered students can use restrooms at schools with which they identify on a gender basis. The bill also calls for the impeachment of President Barack Obama. But there’s still no state budget as I write this.—Kurt Hochenauer)

(Update: Gov. Mary Fallin has vetoed the unconstitutional anti-abortion bill.)

(Later in this post: “This is a long-winded prelude to encourage Oklahoma House Democrats to stand their ground against the cigarette tax unless it’s part of a larger package to expand Medicaid using federal dollars. Both are tied together in a health sense. Accepting additional Medicaid money from the federal government is far more important at this point than the uncertainty of how much revenue a hike in cigarette taxes would produce for Oklahoma.”—Kurt Hochenauer)

It has long been established that, overall, people who smoke cigarettes are less educated and and have less money than the general population so where are the cries of “regressive tax” as the Oklahoma legislature considers a $1.50 hike in taxes on a pack of smokes?

Here’s the information from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention that makes the point about the demographics.

Think about someone who smokes a pack of cigarettes a day seven days a week. That’s not uncommon. The additional tax adds up to $10.50 a week or around $42 a month or around $500 a year. That’s a huge tax increase for lower-income people, especially when its added to the normal burden of sales tax and income tax that people pay to state city governments.

Meanwhile, State Question 779, a November ballot issue that seeks to raise the state sales tax by a penny on the dollar to bolster education and give teacher raises, has been widely denounced from some people on the left as a regressive tax because, yes, lower-income people spend more of their money on a percentage basis for basic sustenance than higher-income people.

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