BY JOE DORMAN
If you have driven the H.E. Bailey Turnpike south from Oklahoma City, you have most likely seen a billboard that reads “Government takes from the Needy and gives to the Greedy,” a statement that is famously attributed to President Ronald Reagan. The quote is from a speech that Reagan gave before Congress, where he basically discusses how government programs often do not actually serve those truly in need. He believed far too many people abuse the system, benefiting from services they do not need or should be providing for themselves.
To this day, we regularly hear this concern from many politicians who argue for cutting spending, citing “waste, fraud and abuse” within government. While I believe the overwhelming majority of taxpayer dollars are used to support essential and necessary programs, sometimes these fiscal hawks are right. That’s why OICA was proud to support legislation this past session to improve the use of audits for agencies, helping to verify that dollars are truly going to benefit who Ronald Reagan described as “the needy,” rather than being wasted or misappropriated to “the greedy.”
With that being said, we are now facing an entirely different dilemma when it comes to state government: a massive revenue shortfall that is starving state agencies and eroding the quality of our government services. While our budgeting problems go beyond just this legislative session, the events of recent weeks have made this shortfall worse.
As I have written before, the Supreme Court’s decision to strike down a recently passed cigarette “fee” is a devastating blow [over $200 million] to agencies tasked with health care services. Meanwhile, several other constitutionally suspect revenue bills are also being considered by the court and may end up on the chopping block as well.
The ongoing budget crisis can be addressed by the Legislature when they return in February or, in the event that Gov. Mary Fallin calls a special session, earlier. The governor has indicated she prefers the latter route and will likely call a special session once the Supreme Court has ruled on all revenue raising measures.
OICA is supportive of this action, as we feel the Legislature cannot wait until 2018 to adequately fund state government and the services that some of our neediest citizens rely on.
At its core, this is about whether or not the Legislature can do its primary job: passing a budget that keeps our government functioning. While it would be highly unlikely we would see a government shutdown in our state, agencies are considering furloughs and layoffs while slashing services that vulnerable children, the elderly and the sick rely on.
Some legislators argue that reductions in services should be blamed on agencies, not the Legislature. For instance, many lawmakers were upset when DHS announced it would deal with its budget shortfall by reducing payments to foster parents.
There are two ways that lawmakers can consider protecting programs like these. The first is to identify priorities and give them a line-item in the budget, rather than simply appropriating a lump sum to an agency. While it is not advisable for lawmakers to micromanage agencies, if there is something specific which they feel should not be cut, a line item can address that concern. All businesses and nonprofits do this, so policymakers should also consider that option.
Second, lawmakers need to recognize that funding for Oklahoma’s state government is not adequate to support “the needy.” To prevent a short-term crisis, we need immediate relief in the form of a special session that provides new revenue. Just as importantly, we need a long-term vision that stabilizes the state’s finances and allows us to provide adequate services for kids and vulnerable adults.
– Former state Rep. Joe Dorman is CEO of the Oklahoma Institute for Child Advocacy