By May 18, 2016 Uncategorized 1 Comment

.  .  .  Overheard earlier today outside room 432A of the Oklahoma State Capitol, during a meeting of the House and Senate Joint Committee on Appropriations and Budget:

“We’re going to need some more duct tape.”

With only seven days remaining until Sine Die Adjournment of our State Legislature, the people of Oklahoma still have very few details about the FY2017 budget.

As reported in today’s Tulsa World, we know that legislative leaders remain at odds over how to best solve the current state budget crisis. This includes debate over two bills (HB3213 and HB3214) that call for boosting teacher pay by up to $10,000 a year while cutting benefits and raising the sales tax.

Speaker Jeff Hickman said the two bills were early drafts of legislation that had been worked on this session, and that final versions may or may not be heard in the coming days.

This practice of revealing important bills at the last minute has become a frustrating and all too common tactic of our legislative leaders.

This legislation potentially impacts tens of thousands of teachers and school support staff across our state.  By capping the amount of money budgeting for employee health benefits, also known as Flexible Benefits Allowances (FBA), the state could save millions of dollars in future health care costs.

However, this simply moves health care expenses to school districts and employees in exchange for a so-called “raise.” As health care costs inevitably increase with time, this will become an underfunded mandate for districts or a reduced benefit for teachers, neither of which is good policy.

Granted, it is little unfair to criticize a bill we haven’t seen yet, but the underlying premise of giving teachers a $6,000 “pay raise” with one hand while pulling that amount or more out of their pockets with the other hand seems disingenuous.

As someone commented on social media yesterday, it’s like “robbing Peter to pay Peter.”

Let’s not forget that while this discussion is taking place, nearly 1,000 teachers across Oklahoma are walking out of their classrooms and school buildings for the last time, after recently receiving their non-renewal letters.

Fellow blogger Rick Cobb posted a more detailed description of the current budget bills on his blog this morning. As Rick concludes:

“It’s not fair to say our Legislature hasn’t been doing anything. They’re sliding shells around the table and courting Constitutional challenge. They’re doing anything but admitting that their policies – their tax cuts – have had anything to do with the budget shortfall our state faces. It’s not all of them, but it seems to be a lot.”

Our policymakers have become rather adept at enacting last-minute budget cuts and one-time revenue fixes to piece together annual budgets in recent years .

Over that time, state services have been cut deeply and repeatedly, leading to severe teacher shortages, larger class sizes, higher tuition rates and user fees, understaffed facilities, reduced payments for health care and social service providers, long waiting lists for services, and other harmful effects.

Moreover, as reported by the Oklahoma Policy Institute, “the dependence on one-time revenues has created a chronic budget hole that we can’t fill even when tax collections improve.”

If we try to solve our budget crisis only by doubling down on budget cuts and one-time revenues, we will only inflict greater damage to our economy and to the well-being of Oklahomans. Instead, we can and must solve this crisis through a more balanced approach that includes new recurring revenues.

Given what our legislature has proposed so far, I’m not optimistic Oklahoma will be lifted from this cycle of perpetual budget crises anytime soon.

Given that, I think I have figured out the methodology of our current state budgeting process. I threw together a simple flowchart to simplify the basic steps.

Seven days left. It’s an election year. Pass the duct tape and baling wire–we still have a budget to pass.

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