POSTED ON MARCH 30, 2011:
Oklahoma's priorities, not its purse, hinders spending on mental health
Like our personal bank accounts, the state budget tells us much about who we are as a people -- what we're interested in, what we value, what's most important to us.
Are we really interested in paying for a lock-'em-up and throw-away-the-key approach to criminal justice? Do we value education as much as we claim? Do we believe it's important to invest in infrastructure for the benefit of future generations?
Inevitably, another question arises: Am I my brother's -- or sister's -- keeper?
It's hardly rhetorical musing, given two important recent developments: First, state leaders acknowledged that some state agencies could face budget cuts of up to 7 percent because of a projected $600 million budget hole. Second, police reported that calls for help with the mentally ill increased 50 percent across Oklahoma from 2009 to 2010.
At first glance, the two items might seem unrelated, but they're not: Oklahoma's mental health system is in crisis. The state ranks near the top nationally in the percentage of serious psychological disorders in the adult population. More than 900 seriously mentally ill are on waiting lists for in-patient treatment. The state's largest mental health hospital is the Oklahoma County Jail.
The truth is, we've turned our backs on the mentally ill in recent decades. As we've cut taxes by $700 million and doled out more than $5 billion in tax breaks -- both mostly benefiting the state's wealthiest -- we've turned a blind eye to mental health needs, leaving thousands to rot in state prisons or wandering the streets homeless.
Given the state's below average personal incomes, many families cannot afford the mental health treatment their loved ones require. But instead of deploying our collective resources to help, we've offered appalling indifference -- allowing wealthy and corporate interests through their high-powered lobbyists to set state government's spending agenda.
While millions of dollars were squandered on pie-in-the-sky startup airlines and rocket ships and sports car plants, Oklahoma closed Western State Hospital at Fort Supply and Eastern State Hospital at Vinita -- leaving only 200 active treatment beds. State officials estimate 70 percent of those with serious mental illnesses aren't getting necessary care.
Don't let the demagogues fool you. It isn't a question of money -- or lack thereof. It's a question of priorities. And what we, as Oklahomans, have declared through our state budgets is this: If you're seriously mentally ill and not independently wealthy, tough. You're on your own.
Callous? Yes. Embarrassing? Absolutely -- especially for a state that prides itself as the buckle on the Bible Belt, devoted to the scripture's red-printed words. Fact: Oklahoma ranks 46th nationally in what it spends on mental health services.
It's way past time for Oklahomans to awaken from their slumber and demand new spending priorities. Despite constant bleating about over-taxation, we're at the bottom nationally in overall taxes. Moreover, our state spending -- as a share of the economy -- is at a 30-year low, according to the Oklahoma Policy Institute. But even if you still think we're overtaxed and we're spending too much, we surely agree on this: Oklahoma could spend its finite resources better and more effectively.
If you’re seriously mentally ill and not independently wealthy, tough. You’re on your own.
Think of it this way: When you have lean budget times personally, do you search for opportunities to spend on non-essentials? Do you look for ways to reduce your income? Of course not. But that's what the Republican-majority Legislature has done the last six-plus years.
This isn't a partisan broadside. Democrats can only hang their heads in shame over some of the spending shenanigans their crews pulled during a near-century of political dominance. But at least Democrats demonstrated concern about the proletariat. They devoted taxpayer money to child welfare and mental health programs, for example. And they didn't automatically dismiss those in need as no-account chiselers and cheats, bent on exploiting the system.
Could Democrats have done better? Of course. But they deserve credit for spending that was aimed at giving as many as possible -- regardless of economic class or social standing -- a shot at the American dream.
As Republicans raged on about the "Nanny State" and government bloat, what they really were about was changing the state's spending priorities. They've spent on non-essentials: Rather than serving the least among us, they've shoveled billions of dollars into the pockets of special interests -- $2 billion of those tax breaks, for example, never created a single job. And they've purposely reduced the state's income: $700 million in tax cuts -- most benefiting the state's wealthiest residents -- so far and another $120 million that will kick in next year.
We're $600 million in the hole yet we're reducing our income by $820 million? And we're still not sure we're serious about eliminating billions of dollars in tax breaks that are, at best, corporate welfare and, at worst, a legal looting of the state treasury?
The truth is, if a majority of state lawmakers weren't toadies of the special interests, they could cut taxes, balance the budget and devote millions to investing in our people -- mental health is just one example -- and our infrastructure. It would be a rising tide that lifts all boats, not just a favored few.
Alas, state government's Republican captains aren't likely to change course until they fear that their cold, dead fingers are about to be pried off the helm. Believe it or not, that could be sooner, rather than later. The reason? The Tea Party crew appears to be in an increasingly mutinous mood.
If GOP powers-that-be can't quell the uprising, the Legislature could more closely resemble a scene from Mutiny on the Bounty than Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.
-(Arnold Hamilton is editor of The Oklahoma Observer; okobserver.net)
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