BY JOE DORMAN
The Legislature convened for the 2015 session on Monday with the State of the State address delivered by Gov. Mary Fallin. It would be easy to make a comment about it being on Groundhog Day and Oklahoma facing another four years of winter, but we must move beyond the campaign and instead focus on solutions.
Oklahoma faces a budget shortfall currently estimated at $300 million. Many experts predict this will grow worse. Surprisingly, the budget shortfall was barely referenced in the speech. This comes in part from falling oil and gas prices, along with the tax cuts which have limited collections. These policies, including the permanent cap of 2% on drilling negotiated by Gov. Fallin, will have a long-term budget impact.
Gov. Fallin campaigned on the economy, so now she will have to live with it.
The governor wants to take funds from state agency revolving accounts to preserve existing services. A serious review of these accounts, along with the tax credits issued by the state, should instead be conducted and implemented.
The governor proposed performance informed budgeting. I applaud this effort as performance auditing has been underutilized. The question will be if the Legislature will finally allocate the necessary dollars to do performance audits, especially in a year when a shortfall is faced.
The three key policy issues addressed by the governor were education attainment, getting smarter on crime and improving the health of Oklahomans.
Education attainment will only be successful if resources are dedicated rather than simply talking about the need. We have heard the rhetoric about how much new money has been put into education, but that was to replace much of the cuts made during the last major shortfall. Oklahoma continues to remain last for replacing the funds to their education budget, coming in at a 22% lag compared to other states.
A proper investment in the classrooms is vital for student success, and this must be at all levels of education. The shortage of almost 1,000 teachers needed to fill vacant positions was not addressed, nor was the pay raise to attract new educators, as proposed by the new state superintendent.
Smarter on crime will take much work and legislative courage. It costs $19,000 to house an inmate, but $5,000 to treat an offender through drug court, by the governor’s numbers. The Justice Reinvestment Initiative needs the opportunity to succeed, which includes applying for the federal dollars in the original proposal.
The attainment of better health for Oklahomans begins with personal responsibility, as mentioned by Gov. Fallin. She proposed schools go entirely smoke-free, banning texting while driving and increasing regulations on doctors and pharmacies to prevent narcotics abuse. We shall see if the Legislature takes up these proposals. The increased problems with treatment of mental health issues will likely be ignored.
All in all, this speech was precisely what was expected – very little substance or ground-shaking revelations, no significant policy shift from past agendas and absolutely no repudiation for some of the silly legislative proposals concerning social issues. No gauntlet was thrown challenging for creative answers or long-term solutions to growing problems.
In other words, to play off the old saying, if we want to see Oklahoma succeed, we must remain active and be a part of that movement for real solutions.
– Joe Dorman, a Rush Springs Democrat, represented District 65 in the Oklahoma House of Representatives for 12 years and was the 2014 Democratic nominee for governor