Tulsa World Editorial: Budget Issues Loom Large

This editorial was originally published in the Tulsa World Sunday, November 22.

By JANET PEARSON Associate Editor
Published: 11/22/2009

Listen up, fellow Oklahomans: State leaders are grappling with unprecedented budget challenges, and if some of them get their way, we’ll get to play a role in addressing them. So sharpen your pencils.

Here’s a sampling of what’s being asked:

Would you rather increase monthly agency budget cuts from 5 percent to 10 percent, and see 56 disabled veterans forced onto the streets; “mass commutations” of prison sentences; the Rader juvenile facility shut down; violent-crime charges dismissed or never filed because there wouldn’t be enough prosecutors to try them or enough investigators to gather the evidence; the elimination of successful programs such as drug courts; possibly fewer highway patrol troopers on our highways; and the closing of as many as 15 state parks? Or,

Would you rather increase monthly agency budget cuts to 7.5 percent and see community mental health services for children cut back; violent crime and hospitalizations increase because of reductions in mental health and substance abuse services; furloughs of child welfare workers; layoffs of forensic lab employees; the closing of group homes for juveniles needing treatment; and the closing of three Department of Corrections work centers? Or,

Would you rather keep agency cuts at the current 5 percent per month level, which still would mean more furloughs, layoffs and service cuts, but which would nevertheless be a manageable level of funding if available emergency revenues such as the “rainy day fund” and federal
surplus monies were tapped to fill some gaping budget holes?
This budget-cutting business isn’t as easy as some people would like to believe, which is something the new GOP majority in the state Legislature is learning the hard way.

Political divide
At this point in Oklahoma’s expanding budget crisis, the chief question seems to be: Do we steer this wreck into the ditch on the right or the ditch on the left?

That observation’s not meant to be politically philosophical, but we might as well get to that. On the right, the Republican Party generally feels agency budget cuts should be increased right away — above the current 5 percent per month level — to meet budget shortfalls and to prepare for even worse times GOP leaders feel may be in store. Republican leaders also aren’t keen to take too much out of the rainy day fund, which now holds around $600 million, because of concerns over what the future holds.

Over on the left, the Democrats tend to feel it’s OK to use much more of the rainy day fund because, after all, budget emergencies are exactly what it’s for. They also are calling for holding monthly budget cuts at 5 percent — at least for now — because bigger cuts would be devastating to the state work force as well as constituencies served by state services. Also, it may turn out higher levels of cuts aren’t necessary.

And, even if cuts greater than 5 percent prove necessary, holding off on bigger cuts will give agency leaders more time to prepare in a more planned, systematic manner.

Sooner or later, state leaders will come to some kind of agreement featuring a combination of agency budget cuts, rainy day funds, federal stimulus funds and perhaps a dab or two of other possible sources. The debate will be over how much of each will be included in the final agreement.

The battle lines are being drawn.

In recent weeks, Democratic leaders have expressed some optimism. Even though general fund revenues have fallen short of projections for 10 straight months, state Treasurer Scott Meacham is now “cautiously optimistic” that the economy “has finally bottomed” and that signs of recovery will be seen soon.

Speaker of the House Chris Benge, R-Tulsa, has a different view. He feels Gov. Brad Henry and his staff are “too optimistic” and says it would be “prudent” to start implementing higher across-the-board cuts now. Making deeper cuts now, Benge reasons, will take some of the sting out of additional future cutbacks, if they become necessary.

But what GOP leaders aren’t saying is that higher across-the-board cuts could only be implemented right away by the governor’s administration — which would provide them some distance (and political cover) when headlines start blaring that veterans are being tossed out of nursing homes.

On with the show
Both Democratic and GOP leaders say the state Equalization Board’s December estimate of revenue that will be available to spend next fiscal year will be a key development in how the debate evolves over the next few weeks.

That Equalization Board’s estimate will be important, but nobody believes it’s anything more than a fairly wild guess. For that matter, even economic experts can’t guess from one month to the next how bad it’s going to be or how much better it might get.

But there is some fairly solid information state leaders as well as the average citizen can turn to now to aid in decision-making: Budget-impact estimates provided by state agency heads at the governor’s request give some frightening specifics as to what will happen to their services, programs and work forces if monthly cutbacks go higher than 5 percent.

Henry has called for legislative hearings on these specific issues and legislative leaders say they’re for doing that too. But legislative leaders have not done much so far to get that information before either their own members or the public at large.

So why waste any more time wondering what might happen under one scenario or another? Let’s start getting at the nitty-gritty of what a 7.5 percent cutback would mean and what 10 percent cutback would mean. Let’s allow the public to have a closer look at what’s in store if state services are slashed further. Let’s get on with the show.

Could there be a reason for the foot-dragging on publicizing these budget effects? You bet.

Remember the outcry of only a few weeks ago when it came to light that nutritional programs for seniors were going to be cut? Lawmakers couldn’t get to the media fast enough to call for restoring senior feeding programs.

Want to guess what their reactions will be when it comes to light that veterans are going to be forced out of veterans’ homes and prescription drug benefits are going to be cut back and violent criminals are going to be let out by the score?

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