Oklahoma Democratic leaders blast 2015 Legislature’s final budget, Republican agenda

OKLAHOMA CITY – State Sen. Randy Bass, D-Lawton, led a chorus of Democrats decrying most results of the 2015 legislative session, starting with the budget sent to Gov. Mary Fallin last Friday night.

“The most important thing we needed to do this year was fully fund our schools. But, yet again, we didn’t do that. We’re still kicking the can down the road when it comes to funding our schools appropriately,” Sen. Bass said in a statement sent to CapitolBeatOK.

“The teachers and parents who rallied here this Spring weren’t here to say, ‘You’re doing a great job! Keep doing what you’re doing!’ They came here to say, ‘Do your job! You’re not doing enough! We need help!’ But once again, the Republicans didn’t listen.

“The Republicans who put this year’s budget deal together will point to ‘no cuts’ to common education. But with more testing, fewer teachers, and more students, we are continuing to ask our hard working school teachers and administrators to do more with less. And our children are paying the price.”

Sen. Bass continued, “I’m proud of the work the Democrats in the Senate did this year. Along with working to pass our own bills, we did the hard work of the minority. We provided contrast where it was needed; we asked the hard questions; we shone light on the dark spaces; and we worked to hold the Republicans accountable.

“I look forward to continuing to work with my fellow Democrats throughout the interim as we prepare for next session and continue our efforts to create opportunity and promise for middle class Oklahomans and their families.”

House Minority leader Scott Inman, D-Del City 2017-18-leaders, has scheduled a Wednesday morning press conference at the state Capitol to discuss “highlights and low-lights” of the 2015 session, including the state budget. 

Recently, Rep. Inman described this year’s work as “the most uneventful session” of his legislative career. 

Inman was the first to predict (early in the legislative session) that the budget gap between revenues and earlier projections would exceed $600 million.

Striking a sharply critical tone was former state Rep. Wallace Collins, the outgoing chairman of the Oklahoma Democratic Party.

In comments sent to CapitolBeatOK, he said, “A budget deal has been worked out although it is well past the Republicans’ self-imposed deadline of April 1. The Republicans have long complained that the Democrats never came to a budget agreement early enough, but they have now found out that governing is harder than just complaining. They did however, spend countless hours finding solutions to problems that don’t exist and discussions on coming up with $25 million to fund a new Museum of Popular Culture in Tulsa.

“After receiving the deepest cuts in the nation (23 percent) in the last two years, we can be grateful that common education received no additional funding cuts; however, a flat appropriation is, in reality, a cut given the regular inflation of other expenses, increases in requirements, and the more than 40,000 student increase in enrollment.

“We can also be grateful that, for now, the Teachers’ Retirement Fund was not raided to fill in the budget hole. Sadly though, there is no money for a pay increase for active teachers or a cost of living increase for retired teachers — yet another promise of ‘next year.’

“We constantly hear rhetoric from the Governor about the importance of education yet funding for Higher Education was cut by over $24 million, meaning higher tuition, a loss of upwards of 100 academic courses as well as numerous faculty and staff positions at universities across the state. The Oklahoma Center for Advancement of Science and Technology was cut by nearly $5 million and the Oklahoma Arts Council was cut by seven-and-a-half percent (7.5 percent). Many of us, as parents, grandparents, teachers, and students, recognize the importance of STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics) courses; however, the Oklahoma legislature apparently does not recognize the importance these studies play in the overall education and well-being of a student.

“What I find most ironic is that the budgets of the Oklahoma House and Senate were not cut yet, despite the increasing number of damaged roadways and closed bridges, the County Improvement for Roads and Bridges Fund (CIRB Fund) was raided for money to help “balance” the budget.

“I do not understand how the leadership can brag about keeping the public safe when money desperately needed to rebuild county roads and bridges is being ‘stolen’ from those revenues in order to plug holes in the state budget.

“Even the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture received a cut of over $1.1 million despite legislation this year which will impose higher fees, with an expected price increase of a gallon of milk as a result. But fear not middle-class Oklahomans – the income tax cuts of which the savings is around $35 per year for average Oklahomans yet significantly help the rich should help to offset your increased out-of-pocket expense at the grocery store; most of the tax credits are for corporations whether or not they create jobs or boost Oklahoma’s economy and infrastructure.

“I suppose it should be considered a bright spot that the Department of Corrections was finally given an increase of 2.9 percent after years of a ‘starvation diet.’ 

The Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services also saw a small increase and after a cut of around 21 percent in the past few years, any increase is appreciated.

“Another bad idea to come from the ‘smaller government’ Republicans is the idea to take tax money from all Oklahoman’s to subsidize small rural counties that are losing population. 

Yes, it is true, HB-1747 would do that very thing! If a person, either from out of state or just from an Oklahoma county that is not shrinking in population, would agree to move to a county that is losing population, that person moving would be Oklahoma tax free for five years.

“Whatever happened to free markets? If a person cannot make a living in such a county, why would the state pay them to move there? Answer, we should not. 

This bill will take more tax money away from the County Improvement Road and Bridge Fund, Education funding, etc., and yet place more of a burden on the already shrinking county’s infrastructure. If this bill is signed into law, it will stay in effect for 60 years.

“While it would be nice to end on a positive note, the fact that next year’s budget will most likely be worse since this year’s budget was formed by raiding agency revolving funds again, using rainy day money, funds from the Unclaimed Property Fund — which will need to be repaid if people make a legitimate claim on that money — and other sleight of hand funding methods. 

The prospects are not bright for a truly balanced budget in the near future from the party of ‘fiscal responsibility.’ ”