It’s no secret Oklahoma is in dire financial straits. Since the beginning of the fiscal year in July, 2009, state agencies have seen a mandatory 5 to 10 percent cut in their budgets. Many agencies have been forced to furlough employees, offer voluntary buyouts and resort to reductions-in-force simply to stay afloat.
Unfortunately the state’s economy shows sluggish signs of recovery. In October, 2009, state Treasurer Scott Meacham said he hoped Oklahoma had hit bottom and would soon rebound. By November, those hopes were dashed as revenue projections continued to fall.
On February 1, Governor Brad Henry, in his final “State of the State” address, laid out a plan for the next year. But that plan has serious flaws, ones with which the Oklahoma Public Employees Association has great concerns.
Henry said all Oklahomans will be asked to sacrifice, “but we cannot balance the budget at the expense of the most vulnerable among us.” The OPEA is in total agreement with that statement. However, protecting our most vulnerable citizens will be nearly impossible with Henry’s budget, which requires some agencies to slash their spending by as much as 17 percent.
Several agencies will be harder-hit than others, and they are largely the ones responsible for providing vital services.
Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services
The Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services operates several hospitals, mental health centers and substance abuse programs throughout the state. Since the budget downturn the agency has reduced Griffin Memorial Hospital by 28 inpatient beds, closed the enhanced residential unit in Norman that cared for hard-to-place individuals leaving the hospital preventing them from becoming homeless, closed the co-occurring disorders unit in Tulsa that treated clients suffering from addiction and mental health challenges many of whom were involved in the justice system, closed the only public children’s mental health beds in the state, closed the Norman Alcohol/Drug Treatment Center in Norman and the chemical dependency unit in Tahlequah resulting in a loss of 65 treatment beds to the system. The cost to families, social services and the corrections system will be millions.
The department has RIFd more than 70 employees in the past few months, and offered a voluntary buyout to others. The recent cuts have resulted in hundreds of years experience in caring for citizens battling mental illness and addiction. The governor’s budget cuts will result in a 10 percent cut, and cost an already over-burdened agency valuable treatment options.
Department of Human Services
The Department of Human Services is in the process of cutting 263 positions at the resource centers for the developmentally disabled. These centers care for the most vulnerable in the disabled community that require specialized care. Many of the workers being cut have specialized certifications and licenses to care for people with serious disabilities. Not only will the clients no longer have the care they need and deserve, the state will be losing years of experience in this challenging field.
“I have dedicated my career to helping people with disabilities,” said OPEA member Jerald Knight. ““It concerns me about the quality of care people will receive if we are not around any more.”
DHS field staff protects children and vulnerable adults from abuse and provide live saving services to the working poor. Caseloads have increased dramatically with the economic downturn. In December 2009, over 500,000 Oklahomans received food stamp assistance, an additional 28 percent over the previous year. DHS employees are supporting these families with the same number of employees. Henry’s budget slashes the DHS budget by 6.3 percent, and could leave those who need help the most out in the cold.
Department of Health
The Department of Health works to protect the health of Oklahoma citizens. That includes vaccinations against the flu; restaurant inspections that ensure dining establishments are clean, as well developing long-range plans to prevent illness and promote healthy lifestyles. While most state agencies saw a mandatory 5 percent cut, the Department of Health voluntary increased their cuts to 7.5 percent earlier in the year. Part of the agency’s cut included a voluntary out offer to 337 experienced employees. At the February Board meeting, the Board of Health discussed the gravity of losing even half of the workers who had been offered the buyout.
“This would cut services and programs in a state that ranks among the bottom in health outcomes,” said Barry L. Smith, J.D., President of the Board.
The loss of expertise, experience and dedication of even a few of these public health specialists could compromise critical programs such as consumer protection and maternal and infant care. Under Henry’s new budget, that cut will increase to 8 percent during the next fiscal year. Oklahoma citizens must realize those cuts could jeopardize their health.
“It’s a desperate situation,” said OPEA member and Health Department employee Betty Weber. “I don’t recall the state ever being this hard-hit before. We are doing the best we can to serve the public, but with additional cuts the citizens of Oklahoma will definitely begin to notice.”
The Office of Juvenile Affairs
The Office of Juvenile Affairs staff works to protect the public and rehabilitate troubled youth. Recent cuts have already forced the closing of the L.E. Rader Center and put the OJA under Justice Department scrutiny because of staffing levels. Additional cuts under the governor’s budget could increase to 10 percent. Slashing more funds could leave the state’s troubled youth with a serious lack of guidance and help, as well as putting Oklahomans at risk for personal injury. In addition, dollars spent in rehabilitating juvenile offenders saves hundreds in the adult corrections system.
Department of Rehabilitation Services
The Department of Rehabilitation Services helps disabled Oklahomans learn to regain some semblance of independence and provides opportunities to achieve productivity and an enriched quality of life. Several DRS programs operate at a rich federal match, providing disabled Oklahomans with critical services to regain their independence. DRS cuts are projected to be more than 9 percent, and could leave a number of Oklahomans to waste away on the sidelines.
Governor Henry, in his “State of the State” address, said “surgical cuts in state agencies and programs are necessary, but it is critical that such reductions do not impair the core functions of state government.” Without a detailed plan in place, The OPEA wonders how these projected cuts will keep from hurting our state’s most vulnerable citizens.