Happy New Year to everyone!

Special Session II, of the 56th Legislature is still going on. Before Christmas, we passed SB1XX which allocated $17.7M to the Health Care Authority, to keep it functioning and to prevent provider rate cuts that would further destroy healthcare in Oklahoma. We also passed SB2XX which appropriated $26.5M to the Department of Human Services, which likewise was intended to keep its doors open. These measures help protect the Advantage Waiver Program which keeps frail seniors in their own homes at a fraction of the cost to the State as compared to those folks going into nursing homes, which don’t have the capacity to house them all anyway. It was essential that these measures be passed. Both of these bills passed unanimously in the House and each passed overwhelmingly in the Senate with the same four Republicans voting against each. Having taken care of these issues, however, does not end this Special Session and we remain subject to being called back into session by the Governor at any time.

Passing these measures also does not solve all the problems as these supplemental appropriations still do not give either agency enough money to finish out the fiscal year (i.e., until June 30). So, at some point during the next session, which starts in February, we will have to appropriate more money to both agencies to finish this fiscal year, which means we will have less money for next fiscal year, thus deepening that hole. In addition, this is, in my mind, unconstitutional. The legislature is supposed to pass a balanced, ANNUAL budget. When you fund various agencies for only a part of the year, that is NOT an annual budget! But, this less-than-annual budget for agencies is one of the new gimmicks the legislative leadership has come up with to allow us to have a so-called “balanced budget” so as to meet that constitutional requirement, while completely ignoring the other constitutional requirement of it being an annual budget.

After ten years of cutting taxes just for the sake of cutting taxes without any plan or foresight, virtually every state agency is feeling the consequences. Because the population has continued to edge up and the mandates imposed by the legislature continue to grow, and appropriations continue to be cut, each agency is forced to do more with less. In and of itself, that could be a good thing; but it could also be a very destructive thing, just depending on how it is done. And why. Adjusted for inflation, the appropriated budget we passed this past session (FY18) is 15.6% less than 10 years ago. When you look at the fact that 90% of the state appropriations go to the 10 largest agencies, and many of those are agencies that we do not want to cut, the resulting cuts to smaller agencies have been devastating. For example, while the legislature has increased its own funding to the Legislative Service Bureau since FY09 by more than 149%, it has decreased funding during that same time to the Office of Disability Concerns by 43.4%. Consequently, the waiting lists grow longer. And the Arts Council has been cut 45.7%; a quality of life in Oklahoma issue. How about the District Attorney’s Council, the funnel through which everything relating to state law enforcement must pass? A 23.4% cut. Now, some serious crimes go un-prosecuted, simply because there is not enough staff to do it. And many cases are resolved, not with the interest of justice in mind, but just to close cases so the limited resources can be focused on other matters.

Large agencies have likewise been cut. That is why the “average” teacher in Oklahoma, when you adjust for inflation and consider how many experienced, higher-on-the-pay-scale teachers have left the state or retired (and are replaced by new, inexperienced, lower-on-the-pay-scale teachers) earns $7,500 less than what the “average” teacher earned in FY10. And some legislators still don’t understand why so many quality teachers are flocking to Texas! Or why in FY12 Oklahoma issued only 32 Emergency Teacher Certifications as opposed to the 1,429 that have already been issued this year to try to fill the teacher shortage; while the standards for those certifications have been lowered, just so we can fill the void with bodies. And, there is still a HUGE teacher shortage.

I am sure you have heard about the big “scandal” surrounding the Health Department. And, I know the same issue will come up with other agencies. But the Health Department is another agency that we have significantly cut (29.2% since FY09), increased their obligations and we funded for less than the full year in this budget. There is no question that they have shifted money around, just to provide services to their clients, robbing Peter to pay Paul, so to speak. But, from everything that I have heard about the various investigations, there does not appear to be, at this time, any evidence that one penny went illegally into someone’s pocket. No, it is more a matter that money was moved from Program A to make payroll, and then money was shifted from Program B to cover the shortfall in Program A, etc. As a prosecutor, we used to call that “kiting checks,” or “Ponzi schemes,” which are illegal, and most likely will eventually collapse on themselves. But, what else does one do when your budget is so significantly cut year after year and you are still trying to provide even more mandated services to your clientele. This scandal is more on the shoulders of the Oklahoma Legislature than it is on those administrators. By the way, we have still shorted them about $30M in this year’s budget. How much is it that they have been shifting around? Oh yeah, about $30M is what I hear. Interestingly, the State as a whole does exactly the same thing (shift money around from program to program and fund to fund) but that is because the Governor’s newly appointed Attorney General says the State can do it, but agencies can’t.

Mark 12:30-31 – You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength. You shall love your neighbor as yourself. There is no other commandment greater than these.

Rep. Ben Loring (D-Miami) represents District 7 in the Oklahoma House of Representatives. For more information, contact him at ben.loring@okhouse.gov or 405-557-7399.