Lt. Gov. Jari Askins is right: It's time for Oklahoma to radically overhaul the way it develops its state budget.
A former state representative now seeking the Democratic gubernatorial nomination, Askins wants to scrap the current system -- in which lawmakers annually negotiate a 12-month fiscal blueprint -- in favor of a two-year spending plan that would force them to think longer-term when deploying the taxpayers' money.
As part of her proposal, the Legislature would continue to meet annually, but one year's session would be limited to regular, policy-related lawmaking, while the other would be devoted solely to hammering out the details of a biennial budget.
"That way we're not waiting until the last few days of the session, so that three people can tell us what's in the budget," Askins said. "A budget session allows all 149 legislators and the governor to be involved."
Askins couldn't have scripted a better legislative session than the one that ended in late May in order to make her case for a budgeting revolution.
As usual, the spending decisions were largely made behind closed doors, by a handful of legislative leaders, in concert with the governor's negotiating team -- then dumped into the vast majority of legislators' laps in the session's final week.
It's all but impossible for even the most earnest, dedicated legislator to read every word of the myriad spending bills, much less analyze their impact on state agencies, the services they provide and the Oklahomans who receive them.
What's worse is that the current, less-than-transparent is ripe for shenanigans and spin, meaning that it's often weeks or months before other legislators, state agencies and state residents know with certainty what the spending priorities have wrought.
Two examples from this year's last-minute chaos underscore the wisdom of Askins' proposal to create two-year budgets -- slowly, publicly deliberated in a legislative session devoted solely to fiscal issues:
First, all we heard from legislative leaders and Gov. Brad Henry in the session's final hours was that they gave high priority to Oklahoma's beleaguered, financially-strapped public schools -- ensuring they fared much better than many other state agencies as the state scrambled to absorb a $1 billion-plus budget hole.
The claims that common ed sustained a mere 2.9 percent cut (while some other agencies were slashed in the double digits) turned out to be pure spin. The public schools actually are dealing with closer to 9 percent cut, meaning districts across the state are slashing payrolls and class sizes are on the verge of exploding.
One of those who smelled a rat almost immediately was state Rep. Ed Cannaday, D-Porum, himself a former teacher and school administrator.
"I became concerned when I requested an Education, Appropriations and Budget meeting the day after we got the budget to review the line items on the State Department of Education budget," he wrote in a letter sent to state newspapers. "I was told that this would not occur and would not be necessary."
It didn't take education officials long to figure out legislative sleight-of-hand. Tulsa Superintendent Keith Ballard was one of the first to publicly expose the charade. State Superintendent Sandy Garrett and others soon joined the chorus, trying to explain to Oklahomans what had been done to their public schools.
An exasperated Cannaday poses this question: "Why did it take our state education leaders and a superintendent of the largest school district so long to figure that out?"
The problems are with the process -- it's not that state education officials and other lawmakers are snoozing on the job.
The truth is legislative leaders work to create the illusion of an open-budget process, holding dozens of committee and subcommittee hearings where fiscal issues and priorities are debated, state agencies present their financial needs and constituencies campaign for a bigger slice of the budgetary pie.
In the end, though, each year's spending blueprint is decided behind closed doors, by a tiny group of House and Senate insiders, in concert with the governor's staff, whose priorities and biases and political agendas remain a mystery until the full impact of the budget can be deciphered.
Legislative leaders routinely argue that it's simply unworkable to involve all 149 members in the fiscal negotiations. Smaller groups, working privately, beyond the pressure of special interests, are essential if lawmakers are to complete the budget-writing process in the time allotted for each session.
A budget-only session not only would relieve the time pressure -- lawmakers would be focused solely on spending, not myriad other policy issues -- but also promises more transparency. Devoting four months to the budget would give lawmakers, interest groups and the public ample time to weigh-in on and determine spending priorities. A two-year budget also would require that legislators engage in longer-term analysis of fiscal issues, leading -- hopefully -- to a more proactive, less reactive spending process.
Second, the funny business at the end of this year's session -- involving the alleged misuse of state narcotics bureau monies -- would be less apt to occur if lawmakers spent an entire session slowly, deliberately crafting the budget.
Sure, woolly boogers still could be slipped in at the last minute -- like an $80,000 a year state job, allegedly designed for a specific Democratic state senator who would step aside and not seek re-election, creating an opening for Republicans to bolster their Senate majority.
But there would be less opportunity for such trickery -- most often attempted in the chaos of a session's final, frenzied hours -- if the entire session were devoted to one subject -- the budget -- giving all 149 lawmakers and the governor time to really analyze the fiscal blueprint.
In my view, there is no time like the present to seriously consider this fundamental change. After all, next year's state budget outlook is even more bleak. Unless Washington again comes to the rescue, the state won't have $1.2 billion in federal stimulus money that helped preserve vital services in the 2010 and 2011 fiscal years. Worse, only about $100 million is left in the state's Rainy Day fund.
Askins, for one, believes most legislators would support the two-year budget plan. The problem is, legislative leaders are loath to change because they fear it could diminish their political power. As Askins put it, "It's difficult when legislative leadership is asked to change procedures they are familiar with. We would be asking the Legislature to change the process, so it's uncomfortable."
Not as uncomfortable as being forced -- year after year, at the last minute -- to vote on $6 billion-plus spending plans into which they've had little input, much less reasonable time to review.
-- Arnold Hamilton is editor of The Oklahoma Observer; www.okobserver.net
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