In case you’ve been sleeping under a rock, Oklahoma has faced budget shortfalls each of the last three years, and they just keep getting bigger. This has created tension at our Capitol – you know the one getting the $245 million in repairs.
That’s not what this post is about. I’m glad the Capitol is being restored. Here’s what Governor Fallin said in her state of the state address back in 2014:
In fact, this building has become a safety hazard. We are doing a great disservice to our state and its citizens by allowing the Capitol to crumble around us.
The exterior is falling apart, to the point where we must actually worry about state employees and visitors – including teachers and students on field trips – being hit by falling pieces of the façade.
The yellow barriers outside are an eyesore and an embarrassment.
The electrical system is dangerously outdated.
And guys, the water stains you’ve seen on some of the walls downstairs? I have bad news for you. That’s not just water.
Raw sewage is literally leaking into our basement. On “good” days, our visitors and employees can only see the disrepair. On bad days, they can smell it.
Based on a Fox 25 story from last week, some of those same terms could be appropriate in describing the state’s budget negotiations process. As Phil Cross explains:
Documents obtained by FOX 25 shed new light on the difficulties of filling the $1.3 billion hole in the state’s budget. They reveal the governor’s office began talking about the budget long before the session kicked off. Doerflinger said while formal negotiations did not start until 2016, the talks started shortly after the 2015 legislative session closed.
Emails from the governor’s staff showed the session began with optimism. Even when House Minority Leader Scott Inman (D-Del City) told the Tulsa World there was no chance for a teacher pay raise during the session, the Governor’s Chief of Staff Denise Northrup wrote “challenge accepted…gov remember this for the meeting with Inman soon.”
Ultimately though, no teacher pay raise happened in the session. By May, a staff member for the governor’s office wrote, “Not very grateful,” in an email to Northrup containing the statement of Oklahoma State School Board Association on the end of the session saying schools would continue to struggle under the budget agreement. Northrup replied, “jerks.”
I don’t find much of this surprising. The governor’s staff didn’t like the push back they received to their budget ideas. And maybe they were upset that Inman didn’t think their ideas would produce a teacher raise, but show me where he was wrong.
Remember, the Republican party can pass any piece of legislation they wanted to without a single Democrat voting for it. If the governor vetoed it, they could override her, again, without a single Democrat supporting them. That’s called a supermajority. Governor Fallin has had that luxury for the six years she’s held the office. It’s a luxury Fallin expects to retain for her last two years as governor as well.
“In this budget, there are things that you don’t like,” Doerflinger said, “and in this case that was one that made my stomach church but at the end of the day the governor has to make a decision as to whether all the other things that were accomplished in this budget.”
The stomach churning was not confined to Doerflinger’s office. Upstairs, in the governor’s office Northrup looked at the final agreement which included an addition that was never part of any negotiation. She simply wrote, “puke.”
I love this kind of insight. Knowing that there would be no budget deal otherwise, the governor’s office accepted something they didn’t want. It made them want to puke.
Yet when the OSSBA feels the same way, they’re jerks, right? Right.
During the last six years, I can’t even count the number of financial decisions our state has made that have made me feel that way. Just for fun, though, here are a few:
In 2012, Oklahoma voters approved SQ 766, which now costs the state tens of millions of dollars annually in property tax collections. This impacts our cities and our schools, and it deepens the budget deficits we face in this state. It benefits large corporations, most notably AT&T. The measure passed 65% to 35%, because all we heard was “tax cut.” Never mind that it doesn’t help most of us.
In 2014, the Legislature passed an income tax cut that continued to cut into state revenue. It is likely that the legislation responsible for dropping the tax rate in Oklahoma to 5 percent this year will cause it to fall even further in 2018.
In 2015, the Legislature passed HB 2244, which threw motor vehicle tax collections into a spin that created huge imbalances in state aid to school districts. On top of that, the Oklahoma Tax Commission misinterpreted the Legislature’s intent for how those collections should be distributed. A judge’s decision against the OTC now means that some corrective action will be taken, which will impact districts’ budget planning.
In 2016, school districts throughout the state faced cut after cut after cut, but only once half the year had already passed. Then during the summer, the same people who wanted to puke because of all the jerks announced that they had accidentally cut $141 million too much from state agencies. They even tried re-branding it a surplus and attempted to talk legislators into having a special session (like the one they worked to avoid in May by holding their nose and accepting an imperfect product).
Meanwhile, the governor’s biggest cheerleaders (besides Oklahoma’s energy industry) – the editorialists at the Oklahoman and the think tank double-speakers at the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs – spent the year alternating between trying to convince teachers that they were actually making good money and contriving strategies to use one-time funds (such as the surplus that wasn’t) to fund raises that wouldn’t be sustainable. One of the OCPA guys even suggested that we should illegally spend bond money to pay salaries. If he thinks that idea will float, then he’s probably going to buy OU’s Tuscan monastery.
Making the burn of bad decisions worse, North Dakota has managed the spoils of their energy industry and created a real budget surplus. That could have been Oklahoma.
Yeah, I still want to puke.
We vote in nine days. Maybe you’re still on the fence about SQ 779 – the penny sales tax that would generate raises of at least $5,000 for teachers. Or maybe you’ve been reading propaganda that says more than half the money will go to higher education. That’s a lie. No matter how many times you read it on the Internet, it’s still a lie. If you want to read the legal language and get back to me, feel free.
If the people who are running things at the Capitol make you want to puke, you still have a chance to support pro-education candidates. A few changes here and there, and our collective stomachs might rest a little better.
That’s about it for things that make me want to puke – well, as long as I don’t get started on the Halloween overtime that is our presidential election.
As you probably know, last week during her State of the State address, Governor Fallin fixed the state’s budget, provided $178 million in teacher raises (with only $105 million in additional funding for schools), eliminated wasteful tax credits, annexed all of the state’s K-8 school districts, provided vouchers for upper-middle class families to attend private schools that don’t need to be burdened by academic and fiscal accountability, and probably secured the Thunder’s first world championship. It was the best of times.
To all of our surprise, some questioned her methodology. Something about why didn’t you think any of this was important during your first five years when the state’s economy was doing so well that it was the cornerstone of your re-election campaign? Or something like that. House Minority Leader Scott Inman probably said it better (as reported in the Tulsa World):
Inman, D-Del City, said tax increases would require a supermajority in both houses of the Legislature, which is unlikely to happen.
“I don’t think it (a pay raise proposal) is false hope, because I think the teachers of Oklahoma are smart enough to look right through this veiled political attempt to win votes in an election year,” Inman said during his weekly press availability at the Capitol.
The state’s budget problems are the result of a dramatic drop in energy prices, tax cuts and other factors.
When oil was selling at a much higher price and teachers were lobbying for help at Capitol rallies, the GOP-controlled Legislature did not offer a pay raise but instead cut education budgets, Inman said.
“As soon as they lose two Republican seats to Democrats in the House and Senate, they realize that people, regardless of party affiliation, are now frustrated with their fiscal mismanagement of the public schools,” Inman said.
“The election is 10 months away, and now they have all ‘come to Jesus’ on the issue, and they want to at least throw that out there as a potential so they can at least go home this election cycle and say, ‘I know the pay raise didn’t happen, but we tried.’
So, Rep. Inman, are you saying that this is just politics? What an opportunity for opportunists! You know that you’re in the minority, right?
State Senator David Holt, who was out campaigning for Marco Rubio in New Hampshire yesterday (his day job is in session, right?), didn’t like Inman’s comments at all. Over the weekend, he took to Facebook to blast the Democrat’s doubt.
The most cynical thing politicians too often do is pray for our city/state/nation to fail because they think failure would benefit their political party. It’s hard to blame Americans who are sick of these games. Yes, these challenges are hard, which is why we all need to work together to get things done for our state!
That’s the most cynical thing politicians do? I’m pretty sure I’ve seen worse.
I don’t think Inman was praying for anything to fail. I simply think he was using his skill of observation and recalling recent history.
Again, I must be wrong because the governor wasn’t happy that people don’t see the unicorns and rainbows evident in her plan. She told Fox 25 in Oklahoma City that it’ll work, pretty much just because.
“For those naysayers who say you can’t do it, show me your plan,” Fallin said. “My job as Governor is to lead and to put proposals out there. I’m always happy to receive everybody else’s plans. Sometimes people don’t have a plan, they just want to be naysayers. I put out an honest, workable plan for how we can give teacher pay raises—how we can fix structural problems in our budget.”
That’s a long lead-in, but let me go ahead and get to my two things.
- History tells us that the governor and the Legislature won’t find a way to give teacher raises. They haven’t even tried the last five years. Math tells us it’s not possible. We have a $900 million budget shortfall, if we trust the current calculations coming out of the Office of Management and Enterprise Service (OMES). Meanwhile, a barrel of oil is selling for around $30 and a gallon of gas for under $1.20
When a barrel of oil was over $100 and a gallon of gas was around $3.00, restoring state aid to schools to 2008 levels was either not a priority or not possible. Tax cuts were possible. Tax credits were possible. Funding education wasn’t. It’s not that I doubt the governor’s sincerity, or that of the 149 good men and women serving in the Legislature. It’s that I have a reasonably good short-term memory. I won’t believe you mean what you say until you prove you do.
- I hope I’m wrong.