Open Door Policy - May 4, 2015
Editor’s note – this is the third in a three part series looking at the Oklahoma State Budget
Proposed Budget Solutions Fall Short of Meeting the Mark
Over the previous two columns, I discussed budget implications facing Oklahoma. We are likely just days away from seeing the proposed state budget details and how the $611 million shortfall will be resolved. This week, I want to look at suggestions for potential budget solutions.
The Oklahoma budget of about $7 billion over recent years has been fashioned by a few people with little input from most legislators. Traditionally, the House and Senate chair and vice-chair of the Appropriations & Budget Committees negotiate with appointees from the Governor. Most have been good people, and I mean nothing malicious towards any of them. I am simply tired of the business as usual in crafting a budget.
Budget negotiations most often involve taking the previous budget and tinkering with programs these few people feel are important or are the most politically relevant. Very little review by the legislature actually goes into what is being spent by an agency except when the occasional audit is conducted following a scandal, or when an audit is mandated by state or federal law.
Transparency is also a concern. With so few people are deciding the budget, there is little accountability. We have seen this in previous years and some have even gone to jail over illegal propositions. There should be greater oversight regarding these discussions, and at a minimum, a bipartisan weekly briefing given to all legislators and the press.
Promises of change have been suggested, but recent plans seem more about buzz words, such as “aligning financial resources to state priorities and measurable outcomes.” This lingo may convince some that different practices will be championed. No mandate for better practices was included in the new law, Senate Bill 189, signed last week. This law simply changed the reference from zero-based budgets, already on the books but not followed, to performance-informed. Changing the name will not fix the problem.
When you review the proposal to modify how Oklahoma Government changes the “business as usual” under the website http://www.ok.gov/okstatestat/, you will find five topics covering fifty subjects and 160 objectives. I challenge you to find a single item on this list that will require less money to attain that worthy goal. You will hear programs will be reduced or eliminated to achieve this, but I also challenge you to name one major government program that has been eliminated in recent years.
There is legislation being considered that was endorsed by both myself and Governor Fallin in our race last year. I worked with Lieutenant Governor Jari Askins years ago to set up parameters for the legislature to spend an entire session on the budget and the next session on policy issues. This has been adapted into current legislation and I feel this is a significant improvement in the system.
A pure zero-based review is impractical for budget limitations, but a mandated performance-based model which eliminates duplication is much more attainable and affordable. Almost all federal programs are audited, so legislators would simply need access to those reviews. I appreciated working with State Auditor Gary Jones to encourage performance and financial audits for agencies. With detailed audits, the up-front expense will generate long-term savings and show where change is needed.
Ultimately, the answer is already in place: elected officials should do their job and spend time thoroughly reviewing agency finances in public hearings before passing a state budget. It will take much work, but hopefully they will soon have an entire session to do that job.
Joe Dorman served House District 65 as their state representative for twelve years. He was the 2014 Democratic nominee for Governor of Oklahoma