State leaders love to crow that -- unlike the feds -- Oklahoma balances its budget.
Yes, it does.
But before you burst your buttons with pride, know this: it's not because our elected officials are preternaturally disposed toward exceptional fiscal management and discipline.
It's actually because they have no choice: the state Constitution requires it.
And what makes the self-congratulating, balanced-budget rhetoric even more hollow is that it helps hide a rather significant fact: Oklahoma government is billions of dollars in debt.
Yes, billions -- between about $2 billion and nearly $10 billion depending on how you define debt.
Like every other state, Oklahoma sometimes borrows money to help finance capital projects (think: highways, public buildings and other infrastructure). It often does so by selling bonds to investors who are repaid with interest.
Billions sounds like a lot -- and it is -- but when compared to other states, Oklahoma's debt is, by most accounts, considered quite reasonable.
There are reasons to fear, however, that it won't always be so, despite our state leaders' incessant anti-Washington, pay-as-you-go blather.
Consider first the Legislature's strategy for financing $160 million in sorely-needed improvements to the crumbling state Capitol.
Lawmakers want to borrow the money because -- thanks to nearly $1 billion in politically-pleasing tax cuts -- the state budget can't afford the routine maintenance. So, we the taxpayers are going to pay more (because of interest) than the estimated $160 million to make the people's house fully inhabitable again.
Wouldn't it be prudent for state lawmakers to set up a routine maintenance fund so that Capitol repairs can be made promptly, on a pay-as-you-go basis?
Republican state Auditor Gary Jones thinks so. In a recent audit of the state Department of Central Services (which constructs, maintains and operates buildings owned or occupied by the state), Jones implored state leaders to come up with better alternatives to borrowing.
"The shortsightedness of legislative leadership and lack of commitment to address capital asset needs has resulted in deteriorating buildings, government service disruptions and increased risk to the public health," Jones wrote.
"The absence of planning and inadequate funding for what could have been routine maintenance expenditures has now escalated into millions. If you don't change the oil in your car, what do you expect to happen?"
The old adage applies: watch what they do, not what they say. What the GOP-dominated Legislature and governor are doing is cutting taxes again, then crying poverty. It's the equivalent of quitting your job at the same time you need to replace your hooptie.
Lawmakers, of course, insist we can cut taxes and generate more revenue at the same time -- ignoring the fact it's been tried before and was a spectacular failure. It's pure voodoo economics.
Which brings us to a second reason we ought to be concerned about state debt: Texas' government-financing model relies heavily on sales and property taxes.
Oh, and something else: borrowing.
Between 2001-10, ultra-conservative Texas increased its debt 281 percent, while the national debt -- no doubt fueled by two wars, stimulus spending and two tax cuts -- jumped 234 percent.
Like Oklahoma, Texas' debt hasn't reached levels that alarm most experts.
But make no mistake: as elected officials insist on cutting taxes or refuse to raise taxes to meet critical infrastructure needs and core services, the temptation to borrow will intensify, meaning future generations will be left to pay up.
"Given the state capitol's current bad state of repair, a bond issue to address improvements is necessary," state Treasurer Ken Miller wrote in response to my questions about the state's debt.
"However, proper long-term planning dictates use of a capital improvement fund to maintain the Capitol and other state buildings so that debt financing is not necessary except in extraordinary circumstances."
Miller hasn't been shy expressing concern about state government financing. But like auditor Jones, he is one of the few Republican elected leaders urging lawmakers to proceed with extreme caution when considering more tax cuts.
"I am confident that legislative and executive leadership will agree to a fiscally prudent tax cut that is structurally balanced and paid for with spending cuts on the front-end, rather than one that is financed on presumed revenue growth in the future.
"Thus, I do not believe that debt will become the 'go-to financing option.' In any case, debt financing can't be used for operating expenses in state government."
Miller reports that Oklahoma's "gross outstanding tax-backed debt" is about $2.15 billion. "When tax-backed obligations that do not require an appropriation are deducted, our net debt is $1.53 billion."
According to Moody's 2011 State Debt Medians, Oklahoma was 38th among the states in both net tax-supported debt and tax-supported debt as a percentage of personal income.
"Tax-backed debt" may not tell the entire story, however. According to usgovernmentspending.com, Oklahoma's obligations in fiscal year 2012 are actually closer to $10 billion. And if you add in debts owed by local governments, taxpayers are on the hook for $18.7 billion.
So we owe billions -- yet we still insist on reducing the revenues that would help pay our obligations.
Senate President Pro Tem Brian Bingman predicts the top state income tax rate will be cut another one-quarter to three-quarters percent this year.
Total elimination of the state income tax -- the ultimate goal of our current GOP-dominated Legislature and executive branch -- would eliminate about $2 billion in state revenues, a third of the state budget.
Can you spell i-n-s-a-n-i-t-y?
If Oklahoma's elected leaders continue to cut income taxes, the lost revenue is going to have to be recouped somehow.
After all, the revenue may dwindle, but the demands for police and fire protection, schools, prisons, child welfare, roads and bridges and other state and local services aren't going away any time soon.
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