Budget Deal Protects Nothing

How the last-minute Oklahoma budget deal “protects” any vital state agency or system is a real mystery, but that’s how conservative legislative leaders and Gov. Mary Fallin want people to view their work at the state Capitol this session.

Just for reference, here was the headline over the main NewsOK.com story about the budget agreement announcement: “Oklahoma legislative leaders say new budget protects education, health.”

Let’s be clear that the budget does not protect any vital agency, such as the Department of Human Services, or any educational system or any health program in the state. It’s predicated on estimates and perceptions of future revenues. It cuts higher education by a staggering 15.9 percent over last year, and appropriates $60 million less over last year for K-12 public education, which has experienced severe cuts already. Common education did NOT receive flat funding like the conservatives want you to believe.There were no teacher raises, of course. Again, if revenues drop this coming fiscal year below estimates, the cuts will begin anew, and this time they could begin earlier in the budget year.

Some agencies, such as the Oklahoma Health Care Authority, received a small increase over last year's appropriation, but any new revenue failures could wipe that out quickly.

The nearly $6.8 billion budget, a conservative morass created in last-minute deals and bitterness, is a mighty mess of epic proportions. It doesn’t protect. It devastates. It dumbs down the state. It hurts the poor by reducing the Earned Income Tax Credit. It uses one-time revenues that probably won’t be available next fiscal year, consequently setting up a future budget crisis that could match or even exceed the disaster conservatives created this year.

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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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