Oklahoma Budget Games: less is more, more or less

OKLAHOMA CITY – If analysts on the right and the left are to be believed, the Oklahoma Legislature managed to produce a state budget for the coming year that is both dishonest and impenetrable.

Jonathan Small, fiscal vice president at the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs (OCPA), a free-market think tank, described the process this year as “the most egregious budget games yet.”

David Blatt, executive director, of the Oklahoma Policy Institute (OPI), chided the budget tricks of the Legislature for their lack of transparency, and in a blog described legislative appropriations as “essentially unchanged” from last fiscal year to this.

Small summed up the games for Oklahoma Watchdog: “The legislature blatantly appropriated funds to the agency in the current fiscal year (FY-2014) and then mandated through law or behind closed doors that the funds cannot be spent until FY-2015,” he said.

In his Blog, Blatt piled on: “The budget tapped $254 million in one-time revenues that were transferred from a variety of accounts, including the Cash Flow Reserve Fund ($101 million), the Unclaimed Property Fund ($40 million), and more than two dozen agency revolving funds ($108.2 million).”

“While the legislature has raided revolving funds in the past to be used in the upcoming fiscal year, they have never tried to conceal the effort by pretending the funds applied to the existing fiscal year,” Small said.

State Treasurer Ken Miller described the result in an interview with The Oklahoman, the state’s largest newspaper. No matter how lawmakers tried to massage the numbers, overall spending is up.

“I’m not trying to be critical,” Miller said. “I’m not saying it’s a bad budget. The numbers are what they are. This year’s GA (general appropriation) bill is larger than last year’s GA bill.”

While total state government revenues were at an all-time high in this fiscal year, Oklahoma Watchdog has reported the Legislature had $188 million less to spend due to “off-the-top” assignment of millions of dollars to pre-determined purposes.

The Oklahoman reported in yesterday’s editions, the FY-2014 general appropriation was $7.11 billion; the projected total for FY-2015 is $7.12 billion.

The explanation for “less is more” – or is it “more is less”? — lies in both the use of one-time funds for the projected budget, and supplemental appropriations for the current (FY 2014) cycle, and how each is presented.
The latter included a supplemental appropriation of $47.7 million for the Oklahoma Health Care Agency, which runs the state’s Medicaid programs, to help ameliorate cuts in provider rates.

The money was approved during the spring session for this year’s budget, but with instructions it could not be spent until the new fiscal year.

That’s where the plot thickened.

Miller’s point, outlined in his revenue briefing this week, was that actual spending in FY 2015 will exceed FY 2014, although legislative leaders and Gov. Mary Fallin pointed frequently to a budget “hole” after final certification of spending this spring.

You may contact Pat at patrick@capitolbeatok.com