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Open Door Policy - August 31, 2015

 State Budget Cuts Result in Lower Services, Higher Fees

                State agency officials were warned last week to prepare for additional budget cuts for the upcoming Fiscal Year 2016-17.

                The Legislature and our governor were forced to make significant budget cuts last year across various agencies, and to raid a host of reserve funds kept by different agencies, boards and commissions, in order to balance the state budget as required by the Oklahoma Constitution.

                The initial estimate given to agency officials last week was that the budget shortfall could range from $600 million to $1.2 billion fewer dollars available for appropriation next year. Remember, this is on top of the $611 million slashed from the current state budget, which followed a $188 million shortfall in 2014.

                This means that next year, state expenditures for programs that affect the lives of you and your family will have been reduced in three years by more than one billion dollars, and perhaps as much as two billion dollars.

                The Republican leadership of Oklahoma has been successful in its relentless campaign to “right size” government by reducing the amount appropriated to state agencies. Their agenda to continue to cut various taxes and replace some lost revenue with fee increases has been successful in the five years in which they have had complete control of Oklahoma state government.

                In their defense, you will hear them blame the plunging price of oil as an excuse. This is only part of the equation, as they have consistently campaigned to reduce the budget and have implemented policies which do precisely that.

                Let’s review what has happened in recent years as the Democrats slipped to one-third of the Legislature, and with a Republican governor.

                Oklahoma has the worst funding levels for education programs in the nation since 2008, by inflation-adjusted dollars, in addition to creating additional unfunded mandates on teachers for additional high-stakes tests and administrative work. GOP legislators talk about putting in new dollars, but when they do not keep up with appropriations compared to the other 49 states, is that something they should really be bragging about?

                Public school teachers and many state employees have not received a pay raise since the Henry administration. There were well over 1,000 open spots in classrooms across Oklahoma at the beginning of this school year, and throughout last year, as well. This means local schools are forced to hire teachers who are not certified in their particular field, to educate your kids and grandkids, nieces and nephews, friends and neighbors.

                Teachers leave Oklahoma to receive much better pay in states surrounding Oklahoma, particularly Arkansas and Texas. In addition, college students are not entering teacher education/training programs because they view the future in that field as grim, thanks to our current politicians. This leads to the expansion of private programs funded by businesses for the kids who receive admission. This is essentially modern segregation based on income levels rather than race.

                Multiple income-tax cuts have been passed in recent years to give money back to the wealthiest of Oklahomans. The average amount returned to most Oklahomans through these cuts is equivalent to one tankful of gasoline – and that is at current levels with cheap gas. Politicians have campaigned on their tax cuts, while at the same time wringing their hands to figure out how to pay for essential programs that they must fund in order to not look bad to voters and donors who are the few who actually show up at the polls.

                Some of that revenue loss has been recouped by state agencies raising fees on services for the middle class. Just a few of these include multiple additional fees implemented on students attending our major universities, a broad range of Agriculture Department fees that increased Sept. 11, and further penalties implemented through the court system.

                Driver’s license fees were increased significantly in 2013 in order to raise funds for the Department of Public Safety, particularly its understaffed driver examiners. As a result, the cost of a four-year new or renewed Class D operator’s license jumped 56%, to $33.50; in addition, the price for Class A, B and C commercial licenses, and the cost of a Class D operator’s license for senior citizens and for motorcyclists, went up $10 apiece.

                A study performed in 2013 by the Oklahoma Policy Institute showed that in that year, the state collected more than $600 million in fees, a 48% increase from just the prior year. Imagine what the budget shortfall would have been in recent years had Republican legislators not imposed these fee increases on programs that directly affect you! 

                So when you hear the upcoming rhetoric out of our State Capitol about how bad things are due to the price per barrel of oil, remember that this is only part of the story. Your decision on who you vote for – or worse, if you choose to not vote and let others make the decision for you – makes a big difference on where we proceed as a state. Vote for people who will work together for solutions, not just simply to be elected to a job that many refuse to do properly.

Joe Dorman served House District 65 as a State Representative for twelve years and was the 2014 Democratic Nominee for Governor of Oklahoma.  Dorman is currently the Community Development Director for Heart Mobile.