The unprecedented financial problems greeting Oklahoma legislators on their return to the state Capitol on Monday likely will force deeper cuts or higher fees for state services by the time lawmakers leave in late May.
With Republicans in control of the House and Senate — and with nearly every legislative seat up for election this fall — it is highly unlikely the Legislature will seek tax increases to address the $1.3 billion revenue gap between this fiscal year and the next.
“They’re not saying it and by all appearances, they’re not going to say it,” said David Blatt, director of policy for the Oklahoma Policy Institute and a former budget analyst for the Oklahoma Senate. “New taxes are the elephant that’s not even being led into the room.”
Tax-increase proponents — if any step forward — would need 75 percent margins in both houses of the Legislature to succeed.
State Treasurer Scott Meacham, the governor’s point man on budget negotiations, has said legislative leaders have discussed fee increases, “more efficient” tax collections and refinancing state bonds as a way to buoy the budget.
The Legislature last year approved a $7.2 billion budget hammered by a sluggish economy and a drop in natural gas prices. The budget for 2010-11 will likely be around $5.9 billion.
“Oklahoma has never seen a 20 percent reduction from one year to the next,” Meacham said.
State agencies saw their budgets slashed by 5 percent shortly into the new fiscal year, then by 10 percent in December. Low-income seniors taking part in a state-funded meal plan were among the first to suffer.
“We’re still delivering meals, but the quality of the meals has gone down,” said Diane Chadsey, who manages a senior nutrition center in McAlester. “We’re serving a lot more beans and stews. Instead of ground beef, we’re having to use ground turkey.”
About 60 workers were laid off at the Department of Mental Health and a number of treatment center beds and community mental health services were eliminated.
“We know there are a lot more Oklahoma families suffering today than were suffering when this (fiscal) year started,” said Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services Commissioner Terri White. “You see an increase in folks ending up in county jails, increasing number of folks ending up in the court system and ultimately ending up in our state prison system.”
Twelve state agencies have either started furloughing workers or plan to do so to cope with budget cuts.
The budget situation facing public schools is the worst Steven Crawford has ever seen in his 38 years in education. Now the director of the Cooperative Council for Oklahoma School Administration, Crawford said he expects about half of the state’s 532 school districts will have to implement reductions in force before the next school year.
“Worst case scenario, we could see 3,000 fewer employees in the public schools next year,” Crawford said.
Legislative leaders and the governor agreed earlier this month to tap reserve funds to help shield education, prisons and health care from further budget cuts this fiscal year, but that agreement doesn’t address how lawmakers will balance the budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1.
If anything, Meacham said, the budget woes should provide for a sobering session in a political year.
“You often tend to see a lot of grandstanding and political initiatives that are designed to advance people’s political careers and things like that,” he said. “Hopefully this will get the Legislature to focus on what’s really important to the people — and that’s how they’re spending their tax dollars.”