Patrick B. McGuigan
OKLAHOMA CITY – A government completely dominated by conservative Republicans will increase spending by at least $250 million next fiscal year, if the plans of the governor and legislative leaders are sustained in the budget process.
At the state Capitol Blue Room, the widely anticipated spending increases were outlined May 2 (Thursday).
As notable as the spending figures in the Capitol press briefing was the apparent sharpening of knives concerning the future employment of Corrections Department Director Justin Jones.
Gov. Mary Fallin, Speaker of the House T.W. Shannon, R-Lawton, and Senate President Pro Temp Brian Bingman, R-Sapulpa, joined with appropriations chairmen and other Republicans from both chambers to give the budget information to members of the state Capitol press corps.
Line items in the budget accord add up to a 4.1 percent increase in spending for Fiscal Year 2014. Net expenditures will jump $267 million over the current fiscal year – a total that includes $17 in supplemental spending, the officials said. Approximately $50 million in one-time money (from special or reserve funds) is built into the total.
Spending hikes to be finalized in the next two weeks project $74 million more for common education (K-12), $33.3 million for Higher Education, and $3 million for CareerTech.
State officials previously announced the $17 million supplemental for the current fiscal year, to cover teacher benefits and ad valorem reimbursements to local districts. That brings the common education boost to $91 million.
The Health Care Authority will get $39.7 million “to improve operations and Medicaid coverage,” according to a summary of the agreement. Other health care spending hikes include $13 million for the Oklahoma State University Medical Authority “to maintain and secure operation partnership at Tulsa’s OSU Medical Center.”
The state Department of Human Services lands $44 million in additional resources to focus on implementation of the Pinnacle Plan, a reform of children’s services flowing from a lawsuit settlement reached in 2012.
Officials had also previously disclosed a spending boost for the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services; the May 2 (Thursday) accord among state leaders put the total hike at $17.4 million.
As part of a “pay-as-you-go” infrastructure agreement (fashioned as an alternative to bonded debt), $30 million will be added for maintenance in the State Buildings Revolving Fund. Another $60 million is planned to pay for state Capitol building repairs and refurbishment.
Other spending increases include $3 million for the governor’s closing fund (an economic development tool Gov. Fallin requested in 2011), $3 million in additional drought relief funds, and $1.5 million in startup money for the newly-created administrative system for workers’ compensation.
Many questions at the briefing focused on the Corrections Department and Director Jones, embroiled in controversy in recent days for having – other state officials say – more in operating and reserve funds than previously believed.
In response to a question from CapitolBeatOK, state Finance Secretary Preston Doerflinger said the “discrepancy” between the agency’s actual reserves and previously disclosed accounts amounted to some $6 million. State Sen. Clark Jolley, R-Edmond, said he believes “the dates of encumbrances” are an issue of “greater concern” than the total.
In response to direct questions, Gov. Fallin explicitly refused to give Corrections Director Justin Jones any vote of confidence, saying she wanted to give her recent appointees to the Corrections Department board time to evaluate the agency’s operations.
Despite the increased spending, Democratic critics faulted the budget accord as inadequate for state needs.
At his weekly briefing for the Capitol Press Corps, House Minority Leader Scott Inman, D-Del City, assailed the “fiscally irresponsible” income tax cut slated to take effect in 2015 and 2016.
Joined by state Reps. James Lockhart, D-Heavener and David Perryman, D-Chickasha, Inman said the state should have instead increased spending for health care, education and other areas of government.
Inman characterized the $74 million boost for public education as “wholly inadequate.” He asserted the total means K-12 education will face a “net cut” in real dollars this December.
Inman and his colleagues also said all government employees deserve pay hikes.
Doerflinger and Fallin said the administration would wait on pay proposals until completion of a study he is guiding. Democrats argued strongly for pay hikes for state Troopers, Corrections officials and others, as prelude a wider pay increase.
House Democrats supported the health care spending increases for Tulsa-area facilities. Inman and his colleagues said they “didn’t play much of a role” in budget negotiations. Inman also said the majority of House Republicans had no budget details until a caucus meeting on Thursday morning.
Michael Carnuccio of the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs (OCPA), the state's leading free market think tank, told CapitolBeatOK, "For the third budget cycle in a row, Republican control of state government has produced increased government spending, no immediate tax cuts for families, and continued earmarks for pet projects."