State Budget Breakdown (FIRST)

Editor’s Note: Prepared in the days after the close of the regular session and before this past week’s special session of the Oklahoma Legislature, this is the first in a sequence of ‘budget breakdown’ articles from Senator Roger Thompson of Okemah. A Republican, he is the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee.

At the heart of it, the state’s budget is about the people and the services they depend on, from public safety to mental health, education, and other vital programs and services. For the past year, I’ve been working with my Senate Appropriations subcommittee chairs, along with our counterparts in the House, to write a budget that is driven by the philosophy that the budget is not just a spreadsheet about money – it’s about people and how these investments impact lives and shape our state’s future.

What are the needs throughout Oklahoma, and how best can we meet those needs with the resources we have? In regard to the Fiscal Year 2023 budget, I have to say it is one of the best we’ve produced in a number of years, prioritizing critical areas while helping keep our state strong in anticipation of future economic changes.

I think one of the most important accomplishments of this budget is that we are going to be able to completely eliminate our state’s waiting list for home and community-based services for individuals with developmental disabilities.

These Oklahomans are among some of the most vulnerable in our state, and yet they’ve been waiting for services for years – some for up to 13 years in fact. This year we appropriated $32.5 million, which will help us eliminate the waitlist within 18 to 24 months. It’s historic, and it is going to have a positive impact on our state for years to come.

I’ve had more calls on that particular item compared to anything else in the budget, from people who simply wanted to say, “thank you.” They’ve told me what a huge difference this investment will make in the lives of thousands of people and their families.

Another key area we sought to address is mental health. We were already facing significant needs in this area, but those needs were both highlighted and heightened as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. This year we put more money into mental health, including more beds at the state hospital in Vinita. We’re investing in mental health services for veterans, law enforcement, through the Department of Human Services, and in other areas as well.

We also made important investments in public safety, which is another area Oklahomans have prioritized. This budget gives Oklahoma Highway Patrol (OHP) troopers raises for the first time in years and fully funds an OHP academy. It also addresses needs in other areas of public safety, including our fire departments – we’ve had a lot of wildfires in western Oklahoma during the ongoing drought, so we made sure there were resources available to help protect lives and property.

The teacher shortage is something we’ve worked to address in this budget by investing another $17 million in higher education to bring more educators into the pipeline – this is essential for our public schools.

The 2023 budget also takes a fiscally conservative approach. Once again, we did not appropriate the full amount authorized. While our economy has been growing, we’re already seeing signs of that slowing down. We ended this year with about $3 billion at our disposal. Many people say that’s a lot of money, and it is, but we need to put it in perspective.

When you look at all sources of funding, not just state tax dollars, we’re talking about a $30 billion budget, and we have about 10 percent in savings. Those savings represent a critical safety net and a way to better shield the services our citizens rely on, especially during economic downturns. I can’t imagine a family, concerned with the possibility of looming changes in their income, tapping into their savings before they are needed, or encumbering ongoing expenses using a one-time pool of money. I fully stand by our commitment to building up and protecting those savings for the future when they are most needed.

These are just a few highlights for the 2023 budget. In the coming weeks, I plan to present more in-depth breakdowns within various appropriations categories. But be assured, this is a budget produced by the representatives of the people who have done their constitutional duty to take care of the needs of Oklahoma.