Rep. Jason Nelson reflects on budget — “and then what?”

By Patrick B. McGuigan

In a Monday, November 23 interview, Jason Nelson, a first term Republican representing Midtown Oklahoma City District 87 at the Capitol, said the state’s financial crunch and budget challenges are “sucking all the oxygen out of the [state Capitol] building. It will dominate our work for some time to come.”

The budget and state tax revenues are the issues obviously dominating discussion among lawmakers as they look to the coming year. After that, Nelson said, “The question on the budget is really ‘and then what?’”
Nelson reflected, “I believe the very next issue, and one we might have the will to address, is workers’ compensation reform. This time it has the potential to be the legal issue that tort reform, lawsuit reform, was” in the 2009 session. “It certainly is a significant issue for small businesses and workers in my district.”
Nelson praised the work of state Reps. Mark McCullough of Sapulpa and Dan Sullivan of Tulsa on workers compensation system reforms. “I plan to run alongside them and help as I can. This is an issue that has dominated argument and debate for decades among both Republicans and Democrats,” Nelson continued,
“The system and its litigation orientation have created common problems, experienced by both employees and businesses. The problem as I and many others see it is that so many resources, so much of the money created, when injury is identified, go to lawyers instead of to employees. In essence, a lot of the money that is ordered in payment is taken off the top for lawyers. I hope we create a system that is more equitable to both employees and employers.”
Nelson says “An administrative approach would certainly be preferable to what we’ve had. I recently had the opportunity to tour a major manufacturing facility still here in Oklahoma. They praised the work ethic and many of the economic conditions we have created here, but said that workers’ comp costs are just killing them. Workers comp rates cost us a lot of jobs here in Oklahoma.”
Rep. Nelson serves on the House Judiciary Committee, where he is one of only three non-lawyers. He also handles human services and public health issues, noting “Deaconness and Integris [hospitals] are both in my district.” Perhaps most significantly in light of current tax and finance issues, Nelson serves on the Appropriations Subcommittee for Judiciary and Public Safety.
Before winning a close election in 2008, Nelson was already deeply involved in human services, having worked with a group advocating foster care reforms. He is gratified at reforms enacted last year “that are reducing the number of kids trapped within the system. … The bill I worked with others on promotes more coordination and communication among law enforcement and the people at DHS. … Law enforcement and local jurisdictions are doing a better job. We’ve seen a 2,700 reduction in the number of children taken into custodial protection.”
Yet, he continues, “The crunch is that the budget situation is hurting services in homes, in foster care situations. There are programs to help teach foster parents coping skills and other practical steps to take better care of these children. The current concern with the budget is absolutely affecting our ability to work on these issues.”
The budget crunch is real, but proposals on how to address it vary all over the map. “The federal stimulus funds are available but they will not be adequate to the situation we now face. Revenues have been in a free fall, as you and others have reported. There will be budget hearings in the next several weeks and I expect a special session, probably in January.”
Nelson continued, “The work on appropriations and budget that I do, in the public safety and judiciary areas, presents many challenges. I think we’ll have to go into the Rainy Day Fund, in part because the agencies have already spent the money in accessing reserves, and that money must be repaid. Some have pointed to the federal stimulus money as a way to bridge things over, but that is not enough for the demands we are facing. The national economy seems to be turning around, but the overall picture for Oklahoma is not going to get any better any time soon.”
Addressing a critique often heard from the minority (Democratic) side of the aisle, Nelson comments, “The criticism from some is that tax cuts in recent years, which put more money into the pockets of taxpayers, have caused the budget crunch. But without those tax cuts spending would have been even higher in the first place and we’d be facing the same challenges, and needing even greater spending cuts.”
Nelson has some sympathy for proposals to allow larger annual deposits into the Constitutional Reserve (official name of the Rainy Day Fund), “and most mostly importantly allowing the reserve to be higher, in total. I have not yet read Treasurer Scott Meacham’s proposals along these lines, but I certainly will do so soon.”
As Nelson explained, “To some extent these dips are natural. Remember that in 1995 there was a crunch when Governor Frank Keating, for whom I worked, first came into office. And Governor Brad Henry faced a tight budget, too, when he first got elected. The cycle comes around naturally, but this year’s crunch is certainly worse than experienced in anyone’s recent memory.”
Nelson reflected, “The [budget] challenge presents a tremendous opportunity. In the area of health care, I believe we can draw a real distinction between the approach being pressed in Washington and a more market-oriented approach to reform and improvements in health care and in insurance. As they say, this is the reddest of the red states. National policy has encouraged home ownership for many decades. I’d like similarly to help craft policies that encourage health care ownership. The price tag on this approach, which would require tax credits and other forms of relief, may make it unrealistic for awhile, but perhaps we can phase these steps in and offer a better model. Here in Oklahoma, we have a chance to create models, alternatives, in the arena of health care reform. I hope we can and will do that.”
Looking back on the year since his election, Nelson said, “I have been encouraged, even impressed, at the ability of one person to make a difference if they get focused and really work on issues. I am not only referring to my own work, but to that of many others. I always understood that the system could be impacted to get better, based on the evidence in observation and in reading and studying the political and policy process. But now, truly, I understand that much better and practically as I am living it, and watching others live it.”
Nelson expressed satisfaction at helping to “bring about a shift on foster care issues and adoption reforms. Watching this reform unfold has been really gratifying.”
Rep. Nelson described himself as “an ardent supporter of education choice. … I believe the right of parents to choose the method or methods in which their children get educated is absolutely central.”
He also reflected on what he considers the negative policy legacies of no fault divorce. “Family dissolution feeds the problems we are encountering in the DHS system and in Corrections. It’s hard to see how we fundamentally improve that picture until we address the collapse of family structures. Divorce is a curious issue. It results in a civil case where often there is no due process. Some statistics I’ve encountered indicate opportunities for reconciliation, for another chance for a marriage to survive, are passed up. There are a lot of challenges in this area, I know, but until we address the breakdown of the family in policy areas, our problems will continue to mount.”
Nelson also commented on an issue where the politically diverse state representatives serving the Midtown area found important agreement. “I supported the proposal to limit property tax increases to 3% a year, rather than the former 5% cap. Rep. [David] Dank worked on that. I remember speaking with Rep. [Al] McAffrey before the House vote. It was something where the three of us were in agreement. It is a bi-partisan issue, to reduce the annual tax growth or burden for people so they can keep their homes.”