OPEA Monitoring State Agencies Under Siege

Recent reports published in various newspapers and websites show employees at the Oklahoma Department of Human Services are finding themselves inundated with requests for assistance from families and individuals hit hard by the recession. According to the Oklahoma Public Employees Association, it is a national trend that will continue for some time.

“National data the Association is seeing shows states human services functions are being hit hard in terms of the demand for services and also in paying for these services,” said OPEA’s Deputy Director Scott Barger. “Many states are hiring record numbers of workers to handle the crush of the new applications as well as adding child welfare and support staff. Certainly the stimulus money is helping with this but what happens if the state’s budget revenue picture does not turn around? What happens when the stimulus money runs out? DHS may not have the funding to sustain the growth.”

According to DHS, more than 500,000 Oklahomans received food stamps last month, setting a new record high. The increase of 17,713 people was the largest increase in recent history. The number of cases increased by more than 9,000 over the previous month putting more case loads on already overloaded workers.

DHS Director Howard Hendrick told the media his agency is adding more than 750 Oklahomans to the food stamp rolls daily. The number of Oklahomans receiving food stamps equate to about 14 percent of all Oklahomans, and 25 percent are children.

“A continuing concern of the Association is the sustainability of the programs if Oklahoma’s revenue does not turn around,” Barger said. “If we have a state revenue failure on top of the current challenges, we are worried that programs for the elderly, disabled, or life skill training programs could be cut just to maintain what we have. We are in a very dangerous situation.”

Other state agencies are not immune. OPEA is also concerned about the budget impact on agencies such as OESC, Mental Health and the Health Department, among others.

“According to officials in OESC, the recession has hit the agency very hard,” Barger said. “Claims have escalated more than 300 percent while the agency has only been able to add around 20 percent additional staff to help with the issue. Due to the stimulus money OESC received, the agency is able to meet its obligations but as the stimulus money ends, the agency will still be left with an incredible demand for services and marginal funding.”

OESC is reporting unemployment insurance payments jumped from nearly $13 million in June 2008, to over $52.6 million in June 2009.

OPEA is concerned the budget situation will prove to be a major obstacle as well. “The Health Department has announced it will trim its budget by 7.5 percent and all state agencies are being asked to take a 5 percent cut in the next month’s appropriations,” said Barger. “Agencies will not be able to sustain the level of services if the trend continues. Agencies must curb travel, discretionary spending, as well as passing on these cuts to any private vendors. This situation is dire and agency administrators are really behind the curve if they have not already started to implement these changes.”

OPEA is watching the budget situation closely and scheduling meetings with state leaders to discuss cost cutting ideas.

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