POSTED ON MAY 12, 2010:
As the Legislature Turns
Final days of session full of dramatic semi-reality shows. But only a select few really know what's going on behind closed doors at the Capitol
The final days of the 2010 legislative session are proving to be full of drama.
There was fiery rhetoric over allowing Oklahomans to openly strap guns on their hips, Wild West style. There was impassioned debate over gubernatorial vetoes on abortions and Oklahoma-made weapons. And there were bruising battles over federal health care policy and its affect on Oklahoma.
More often it's Theater of the Absurd.
And it's all a sideshow.
State government's Broadway -- the real show -- is tucked behind closed doors, away from the bright lights of TV cameras and microphones, where legislative leaders and representatives of the governor are wrangling over every line of the 2010-11 state budget.
When a deal is finally forged, a puff of white smoke won't billow from the Capitol dome -- yet this year's spending plan will be every bit as significant for Oklahoma as the selection of a new Pope is for Catholics worldwide.
You see, the blueprint will reveal much about Oklahoma's immediate future: What will our public schools look like? How safe will our highways and bridges be? How well will we care for our elderly, our mentally ill, our neglected or abused children, our working poor?
Moreover, it will say a lot about us as a people -- and about our priorities. It reminds me of the conventional wisdom that you can tell everything you need to know about a person by studying their checkbook.
Think of the state budget as our collective checkbook.
Even in times of plenty, a state budget isn't easily crafted -- given the competing demands for state services. This year, the challenge is particularly daunting: A battered economy coupled with ill-advised tax cuts last decade created a $1.2 billion budget shortfall. When state Rainy Day funds and federal stimulus dollars are tapped, state lawmakers are still scrambling to plug about a $600 million hole.
The budget-writing process is never open to the public (whether it should be is a debate for another day). No one knows the sticking points, except those participating. All we know for certain is that legislative leaders and gubernatorial aides are meeting.
When the real work is going on in secret, it fuels the Capitol gossip mill:
Are Republican legislative leaders really focused on across-the-board budget cuts, perhaps even deepening the 7.5 percent reductions imposed in the current fiscal year? Is Democratic Gov. Brad Henry really insistent that schools be spared, perhaps hit with only a 2 percent cut? Would the governor really be willing to veto the budget and order the Legislature into special session to rewrite it if a reasonable compromise can't be reached?
As always, lawmakers who aren't seated at the bargaining table -- Republicans and Democrats alike -- are brooding because they don't know what's happening, either. And they're afraid they won't have time to review the massive spending blueprint before being forced to vote on it in the session's final hectic hours.
At this point, the only way to influence the behind-the-scenes process is by seeking to mobilize public opinion.
Last week, House Democrats launched a series of news conferences aimed at forcing budget negotiators to seriously consider freezing, reducing or eliminating some of the $5.6 billion in tax credits that are crippling the state budget.
"Many of these credits claim to create jobs and spur the economy," noted Rep. Scott Inman, D-Del City. "But after serious investigation, it is clear that while some provide the benefits for which they were established, many of these tax credits have become nothing more than a shell game -- being sold to out-of-state companies that never create one job or invest in one building in our state.
"When our state is facing a $1.2 billion budget shortfall, we believe it's immoral for the legislative leaders to dole out tax credits to wealthy corporations that total more than our entire state budget."
It's not just Democrats leading the charge on this issue. Republican Reps. David Dank and Mike Reynolds, both of Oklahoma City, also are pushing their leadership in the GOP-majority House to tackle corporate welfare. State Sen. Mike Mazzei, R-Tulsa, also has urged a thorough review of the more than 450 tax credits on the books.
House Democrats offered a simple solution for this budget year, a 10 percent cut or moratorium on select tax credits to cushion the revenue shortfall. It's basic fairness: If 10 percent cuts are imposed on child welfare, including foster care and child support collection, and other state services, then businesses cashing in on tax credits ought to be willing to share the pain equally.
Without filling the budget hole, the state could lose up to 5,000 public school teachers. Class sizes could explode. Advanced placement courses for gifted students could be wiped out.
University of Oklahoma President David Boren warned tuition could spike again. Higher education officials estimate 600 faculty and staff positions could be in jeopardy -- and surviving employees could be furloughed seven to 10 days -- meaning fewer classes would be available to students.
Legislative leaders have been slow to address the tax credit debacle. For every credit, there are special interests and lawmakers willing to fight to the death to preserve it. But the budget picture is so bleak that negotiators are running out of options.
It's difficult to imagine that even the most rabid government haters in the legislative leadership would be willing to preserve the tax credit status quo, impose draconian cuts and risk the voters' wrath as the full impact of reduced services is realized.
Yes, Oklahomans are generally suspicious that government often fails to efficiently address the state's needs. But there's also a long history of populist distrust that the powers-that-be are able to cut sweetheart deals at taxpayers' expense. In fact, I'm convinced it's the root of much of the current Tea Party anger.
Oklahoma's Republican leaders ignore that history at their peril.
-- Arnold Hamilton is editor of The Oklahoma Observer; www.okobserver.net
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