Another deadline week has come and gone. This one was to get all the Senate bills out of the House committees and vice versa.
Those that have made it this far, now need to be approved on the floor of the respective body they are before. The number of bills remaining has dwindled significantly from where we started this session (1340 bills in the House and 830 in the Senate).
Most of the work this last couple of weeks was behind the scenes and in committees, and relatively little has been done on the floor.
A few bills have squeezed through the entire legislative process and are on the Governor’s desk, and she has actually signed a few. But, there is still much to do and the most important bill of all, the budget, has yet to emerge.
And that is exactly what I want to talk about today, the budget. I don’t want to sound like Chicken Little, but to use the term “crisis” when describing the budget is an understatement.
The budget is where we legislators really speak about our values and what is important to us. It is easy to stand on a constituent’s front porch in full campaign mode and say, “I really support public education.” It is much more difficult to actually cast your vote in favor of public education.
I use that example, very deliberately, for a couple of reasons. First, every candidate campaigns vowing to support public education; I have never heard of a legislator campaign on the promise of, “Oh, I could really care less about public education.” Unfortunately, many that promise the support, don’t vote the support.
The second reason I used that as an example is that the very first obligation listed in the State Constitution for the legislature (Art. I, Sec. 5) is, “Provisions shall be made for the establishment and maintenance of a system of public schools, which shall be open to all the children of the state and free from sectarian control; . . .”
Since I mention the State Constitution, I understand most of you realize it is not just a document full of suggestions. It tells us what we really are supposed to do. But in my 2-and-half years here, we have yet to follow its mandates in determining the budget. Art. 10, Sec. 2, states, “The Legislature shall provide by law for an annual tax sufficient, with other resources, to defray the estimated ordinary expenses of the State for each fiscal year.”
In reality, what we have done so far is the exact opposite; we determine how much money we have and then figure out how much “ordinary expenses” we can afford to cover. Which has been inadequate.
In the very next section of the Constitution (Sec.3), it provides, “Whenever the expenses of any fiscal year shall exceed the income, the Legislature may provide for levying a tax for the ensuing fiscal year, which, with other resources, shall be sufficient to pay the deficiency, as well as the estimated ordinary expenses of the State for the ensuing year.”
But many of those legislators who promised support of public education won’t deliver it. They would rather slash budgets and destroy, than do the right thing and adequately fund education or any of the other core functions of government.
The March revenue figures are in and, once again, we were significantly below estimates, this time by 9 percent. That is over a $25 million shortfall last month. Bottom line: we are likely in for another declared revenue failure before the end of this year which will cut funding to every state appropriated agency across the board, especially since the State has already raided the Unclaimed Property Fund ($30 million) and completely emptied the Rainy Day Fund ($240 million).
We also stole money from “various revolving funds” to pay the bond payment for the $200 million the legislature illegally borrowed last year. In other words, we are already depleting all the various one-time gimmick sources that we have historically used in the past to “balance” the budget.
They are gone or at least, largely used up. So, how are we going to balance the budget this year? Well, the rumors are circulating that this upcoming budget year we will borrow another $400 to $600 million, illegally putting the state further into debt. Sounds more like Washington, D.C. style funding all the time.
By the way, did I mention the State Department of Education (SDE) notified all the school districts in the state this week that their monthly State Aid formula checks will be short to the tune of $36.3 million? Simply because the State Department is out of money.
That means Afton schools will get $18,860 less this month than they expected, Commerce - $31,659, Fairland - $21,647, Grove - $29,832, Miami - $81,324, Quapaw - $31,659, Turkey Ford - $2,564 and Wyandotte - $2,564.
Did I also mention that the schools got all of one day notice of the cut? That sure makes it easy to plan. That means, just as an example, going back to the revenue failure in February, Miami Public schools have been shorted by the State the total of $337,392.
But, it is not just common education. NEO A&M has been shorted basically every month this year from what they were allocated by the Legislature. Once again, the money is just not there.
Regardless, some of these self-proclaimed “pro-education” legislators don’t care, they still maintain there is more fat that simply needs to be cut. So, before we even begin to look at next year’s budget, we will be legally required to replace the $240 the executive branch illegally took from the Rainy Day Fund and the $10 million the legislature supplanted from the casino education money.
Once past that hurdle, then we have a $878 million projected shortfall (which I think will be over $1 billion) from where we were last year, and then we can start thinking about how to come up with the money for the teacher pay raise the legislature promised this year.
And all of this will be done with all of the bank accounts we historically rely on stealing money from, having a zero balance and revenue coming in virtually every month significantly below projections. Right. Easy stuff. How about raising revenue? “Impossible.” says the majority party, “Won’t happen.” And that is the true determination of how pro-education someone is. Or pro-public safety. Or pro-health or mental health. And on and on.
Permit me to remind everyone that cares about the economic well-being of northeast Oklahoma, now is the time to let the Corporation Commission hear from you about the rate hike being requested by Empire Electric District.
This is important whether you are a customer or not. Empire has modified their request, and they are now asking to have only $3.2 million taken out of our local economy to be sent to the shareholders of the Canadian company that just bought them out. Send your letters of concern to: Oklahoma Corporation Commission, 2101 North Lincoln Blvd., Oklahoma City, OK 73105.
Pv. 21:2 Every way of a man is right in his own eyes: but the LORD pondereth the hearts.
Rep. Ben Loring (D-Miami) represents District 7 in the Oklahoma House of Representatives. For more information, persons interested may contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 405-557-7399.