Al McAffrey talks about state budget crunch, MidTown OKC growth

By Patrick B. McGuigan

Al McAffrey, the Oklahoma City Democrat who represents District 88 at the state Capitol, replies quickly when asked what the top problem facing the Legislature will be when he and his colleagues return for another session, whether special or regular: “It’s the budget of course. We have a financial problem here in Oklahoma. I’ve been here at the Legislature for three years. Prior to this crunch we had tax cuts for the top echelon and that has hurt us, frankly.

“Some say we can replace the top taxes with fees, with user fees for certain government services. But you know, people are struggling. There is more unemployment and people are losing benefits.

“The way I look at it, a user fee is just another name for a tax. We can’t raise taxes because that would require a vote of the people, only they can do that. So services are going to have to be cut. That means we’re about to start cutting social programs even more. We’re not going to cut prisons, are we? Maybe furloughs for some cases, to let some of the non-violent criminals out of prison.

“So it’s probably social programs. Sitting on the human services committee, I’ll tell you, it’s so difficult. I’ve had people say to me, ‘’Do you know where we can place any more fees that won’t hurt people?’ I say I really don’t.”

In an interview at his legislative office this week, Rep. McAffrey said, “There are folks struggling every day. We’ve spent all our state money. I will say that I’m thankful our governor has not gone along with everything we wanted to do. Last year, some of us in the Legislature tried to give a $30 million increase for state employees, and he stopped it. That would have been such a mistake if we’d done that.”

McAffrey notes, “Only transportation comes out relatively harmless because of the federal money. I am glad we had that transportation help.”

McAffrey believes, “The leadership to some extent, I think, figured that oil and gas would carry us through difficult times, through tough times. But even that is not enough now. We’re not in as bad a shape as some of the other states.

“I have the habits of a small businessman. I know about payroll, taxes, sales taxes, paying for computers and machinery, utilities. We didn’t hold enough money in the back. I’m afraid we’ve not always been good stewards with what the taxpayers sent to us.”

Concerning the ongoing mandated cuts agencies are already facing, and the anticipated need for legislators to trim even more state spending, McAffrey commented, “We’re looking to cut where we can. There are not really a lot of places to cut. And to get federal money, we have to match it in these programs. In the human services area I believe Director [Howard] Hendrick has done a fine job trying to keep programs alive. It is a time to set priorities. We’re looking at every department.”

Asked to list any areas he thought could be ripe for reductions in a time such as this, McAffrey replied, “I’ve been pushing to look at maintenance in every single department. Can we defer some expenses without hurting? Are there construction projects that are not yet funded that we can wait on, hold up on, without hurting what is important? I hope we spend even more time talking to department heads and to directors to get their ideas.”

McAffrey believes department heads and directors are taking the current situation seriously, and looking for possible economies: “We are asking them, and we should, where in their department we can trim with limited or lower impact on services. They all seem to understand where we are, and it’s a tough place.”

If there is any silver lining, he reflects, “As tough and bad as things are, I am so grateful for what we’ve done in Oklahoma that’s kept us at only 7 percent unemployment.”

To boost the MidTown Oklahoma City area he represents, McAffrey points to a proposal he has made to allow wine sales in grocery stores: “That would boost sales, help our sales taxes and be good for this part of Oklahoma City. Many of my constituents have asked for us to make that change in the law.” 

Some have worried clerks under the age of 21 could be put in an awkward place if such a bill passed. McAffrey explains: “That was probably the toughest part of the issue. The new bill I’ve got coming is modeled on what they do in Colorado. There, they put the wine in a special room and only an older person can do the checkout for that product. Last time, [Republican leaders] didn’t even hear the bill I was pushing. Some people raised mental health concerns. We’re trying to accommodate the concerns, all of them. And yes, we can protect the minors without ruining the bill. Several representatives, including Republicans, have talked to me about a possible compromise.”

This year, “I have a sense that it might gain some traction because people think of the tax on liquor sales as a ‘sin tax.’ Any time we tax something like liquor or cigarettes, anything that you don’t have to do, well, that’s a target for possible revenue that people seem more comfortable with. This is a proposal that wouldn’t hurt the poor and middle class. It would help.”

Focused on the MidTown area, he said, “We have remarkable economic momentum here in Oklahoma City. I was a strong supporter of MAPS 3. I believe the leadership of our city has done remarkably well. The MAPS projects will continue to be good for our city. Our unemployment rate is low here compared to elsewhere. In Oklahoma, it might be only Lawton that is better.

“With the MAPS process, we will continue our momentum in District 88 and around the city. MAPS 3 will help keep us going. I feel fortunate to represent this district where the job loss has been relatively low.”

He reflects on those not participating in the community’s successes, “I sent an e-mail to constituents recently congratulating them, applauding the momentum we have. I got a note back from a lady who said she’d just lost her job and has two kids. These are hard times.

“I must say that one of the good aspects of this job is that when we get letters from people asking for help getting state benefits or with other problems, and we find ways for state programs to relieve some of the stress and their financial burden. That is so rewarding.”

In other areas, McAffrey wants “to put a limit on the use of pre-existing conditions to deny health insurance to people. It’s the New Jersey model and it would assist many people. Another proposal is a bill for the state health insurance policies to cover gastric bypasses to promote health and help our people who are battling obesity.”

Asked for his observations as another political campaign season looms after the spring legislative session, Rep. McAffrey says, “I hope I’ve done a good job and that the voters give me another pass [he was unopposed in 2008], but I’m preparing for an election on the assumption I’m going to have one. I have my website up. I’m trying to campaign in a way that is efficient and cost conscious. I have taken my responsibilities seriously.”

McAffrey concluded with this observation: “Speaking of expenses, I’ve said I would be willing to pay for our own coffee in this office. Three or four weeks ago, KWTV had a report about how much we spend on coffee. Maybe that is something we could cut and save money.”