COMMENTARY: Oklahoma budget-making as a five-act drama – or comedy, or tragedy
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Published: 06-Apr-2013

OKLAHOMA CITY -- Oklahoma Congressman Tom Cole recently compared the current struggle over the federal budget to a five-act drama.  We’re in the midst of our own five-part drama right here at the state Capitol in Oklahoma City.

Will Republicans again grow government or make meaningful spending reductions, or even pass a modest income-tax cut? There’s a chance they’ll do something in between.

In five acts, this year’s Oklahoma budget drama, or comedy, or tragedy:

Act I: Governor Fallin’s budget and State of the State address.

Fallin wanted some modest spending hikes for health policy. She is against Medicaid expansion, but detailed anti-smoking, anti-obesity, and clean living initiatives that will … cost money if implemented.

The governor is under relentless pressure from the Oklahoma Hospital Association to reverse field and support Medicaid expansion.

Some of my best friends are tax consumers, but the truth is that inside and outside of government they have talented lobbyists. Taxpayer advocates, citizens, and liberty-sensitive journalists must be attentive at every stage of this game.

Even the State Chamber of Oklahoma is only conditionally for reductions in government’s size and cost, but good news came recently.

Call it the Act I finale, or perhaps the start of Act II. 

Jennifer Monies, spokeswoman for Chamber president Fred Morgan, told CapitolBeatOK that the Gov. Mary Fallin/Speaker T.W. Shannon income tax cut (from 5.25 percent to 5 percent) meets the necessary criteria to garner Chamber approval. 

Act II continues with positioning by other elected state executives to boost  spending. 

Leader of the band was and is Superintendent of Public Instruction Janet Barresi. She wants a $37 million supplemental just to get through the current fiscal year, and a staggering $289 million increase for next year.

Common education is not the only arm of government with a voracious appetite. David Boren, president of the University of Oklahoma, is an unquestioned master at both public and private fundraising for OU, and for higher education in general. 

Weeks ago, reporters teased Speaker of the House T.W. Shannon when he was an hour late for his session with Capitol reporters. He did not respond when we asked him what he’d discussed with President Boren in the meeting that delayed his arrival, but everyone knew Boren wanted more money for higher education.

Attorney General Scott Pruitt wants a $2 million boost for local law enforcement grants. 

By and large, Republicans holding statewide offices, including the governor, have sought budget increases. (Commissioner of Labor Mark Costello asked for a flat budget.)

Act III began in late March.

As members of the House and Senate contend with what the other chamber has done so far, budget-cutters face daunting realities.

Senate Republicans want tax cuts, but not if that really impacts spending. During a meeting for reporters, I asked GOP leaders about consolidation of some public education functions. Sen. John Ford said he was for efficiencies but “no forced consolidation.”

Around the room, heads nodded at his sagacity, but the response means the education establishment has nothing to worry about.

House Republicans seem more serious about restraining spending—but the proof will be in the pudding.

And then, Act IV comes in early May.

Gov. Fallin, House Speaker T.W. Shannon, and Senate President Pro Tem Brian Bingman will start the horse-trading (not necessarily slaughter) that has  characterized legislative sessions throughout Oklahoma history—including those since Republicans took control.

Odds are the permanent education bureaucracy -- including local superintendents making a quarter-million dollars a year who have fought school choice and accountability reforms -- will get much of what they want. Corrections officers, troopers and a few others will get pay hikes; the state will meet requirements under a human services lawsuit settlement; and so forth.

Proposals to cut spending come and go, but the permanent government and its allies in the government-dependent private sector go on forever. Distrust of government is high, and voters long (theoretically) for restraints on taxes and spending, yet government spending at all levels has risen. It took an unwelcome Great Recession to moderate the pace of growth, but the direction thus far remains inexorable. 

Act V starts the day Oklahoma government grows at least incrementally in late May, and perhaps as much as $200 million.

Readers: Linger on actual performance. As analysts at the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs say: “Don’t read their lips. Read their budgets.” In an era of low inflation, Oklahoma’s tax collections and state spending are at record highs.

Are conservatives being instructed by actions, rather than rhetoric, that state government spending will increase forever? Do Republicans value spending hikes over tax cuts?

What are they for, and what are they against? What does conservative mean in Oklahoma, in 2013?

Just thought I’d ask.

NOTE: This is adapted from an essay prepared for the April 2013 edition of Perspective, monthly publication of the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs.

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