Last session, the Legislature raised taxes on cigarettes, motor fuels and production from new oil and gas wells. This provided enough money to fill a budget hole that loomed for much of the year. It also raised enough to fund an average teacher pay raise of $6,100 – the first raise in a decade – as well as give additional benefits to teachers and funding for textbooks and classroom materials. Money also went to DHS to support in-home care for elderly or disabled adults. Medicaid providers saw reimbursements increased. The Department of Health was able to reinstate funding for child abuse prevention services. Also, money was appropriated to the Department of Corrections to give their employees and guards a very modest pay raise. And, legislators were able to appropriate enough dollars to the Transportation Department to continue its 8-year plan for roads and bridges.
I’m hearing arguments that the state Legislature raised taxes too high last year. I’ve heard some say there will be a billion-dollar budget surplus next year.
I hate to argue, but it’s too early to tell. The taxes the Legislature raised last year have already been spent to fill the $800 million budget hole and provide funding to areas of the budget that needed it. We may, for the first time in several years, have enough to fund core government services instead of cutting services to the vulnerable among us. Enough to keep our teachers in classrooms, fund healthcare, mental health and elder care, put a dent in the disabled services waiting list, sufficiently staff our state public safety agencies, continue the push to fully repair state roads and structurally deficient bridges, and more.
The good news is our economy is trending positive. According to the Office of Management and Enterprise Services (OMES), the past two months’ data shows 2 percent growth above the amount the office estimated for the current fiscal year. This is good news, but we simply do not have enough data to predict a massive surplus at this time.
Let’s assume receipts keep coming in at the same rate as the past two months for the entire year. That would be an overall surplus of 2 percent. The total appropriated state budget was around $6.5 billion last year. A 1 percent change equals around $65 million; 2 percent growth would be a surplus of $130 million – certainly not chump change, but not the excessive billion-dollar amount some are arguing. To reach that amount, receipts would need to come in at more than 15 percent over estimates.
We are moving ahead with the audits of state agencies to find duplication of services and efficiencies. This is good, but the Legislature must make a concerted effort to scrutinize spending across-the-board to stretch our budget and fund what really needs to be funded.
Thankfully, we made a significant dent in our structural budget deficit problem. The policies the Legislature enacted over the past two years have allowed a shift from using one-time, erratic funding sources to more stable recurring sources of revenue. This will help stabilize our budget, but there is still much work to do. We need the economy to hold like it is or get better so we can focus on long-term planning to help us save dollars instead of focusing on filling budget holes.
Fortunately, we shouldn’t have a budget hole next year, but that doesn’t mean we’ll be flush with cash. For now, growth is positive based on the two-months of data we have, but much can change and in a short time, in Oklahoma – as we all know.
The primary and resulting runoff elections are now in the rear-view mirror. They were telling on two fronts: Public engagement with Oklahoma politics is increasing and Oklahomans sent a loud message to the Legislature.
An unprecedented number of citizens ran for state House and Senate seats this year. This is a good sign. It is a sign Oklahomans are interested in the politics and policies of our state. The spectacle of multiple special sessions highlighted the state of deadlock in the state legislature. The scene was fortified further with the teacher walkout. The apathy toward state politics is in decline - for now. This is good.
I have spoken to many candidates this election cycle. The most pertinent information on what the people of Oklahoma want can be gained from candidates’ interactions on the doorsteps with voters. The message I hear from constituents locally and candidates throughout the state is Oklahomans are sick and tired of gridlock. Oklahomans want results; they want their representatives to govern and govern in a way that produces excellence. Oklahomans abhor being a low ranking state. I agree, and the results of the primary elections seem to, as well.
When I was on your doorsteps in 2016, you told me to do two main things: fix the budget hole and give teachers a pay raise. We tried many times. 50 or-so representatives were with me and consistently voted in favor of bills that would provide teacher pay raises and fill the budget hole, but holdouts on both sides of the aisle caused those attempts to fail. That is until House Bill 1010XX was brought to the floor.
HB1010XX provided the funding to fill the budget hole and provide pay raises for teachers, education support staff, and state employees. The bill achieved this with gas/diesel, cigarette, and gross production taxes. The bill was designed to have as minimal of an impact as possible on working Oklahomans.
The bill arrived on the floor of the House a week before the teacher walkout. It was as divisive as the other attempts, but the pressure of the impending walkout was enough to move all the Democrats who were holding out for more or different taxes and some Republicans holding out on principle to vote yes.
How a representative voted on this bill was magnified by the teacher walkout. Representatives and Senators who voted no on HB1010XX were the target of teachers and, looking at election data, many others.
There were a total of 19 no votes on HB1010XX. Of those 19 representatives who cast no votes, seven representatives either termed-out or resigned, two lost in the primary, and six lost in their runoff. As a point of emphasis, there were a total of 10 Republican representatives pushed into runoff elections. 3 of them voted yes on HB1010XX, and all three won their runoff. In contrast, 6 of the seven who voted no were defeated.
What does this mean? Do the yes votes on a tax-raising bill mean the Oklahoma legislature is becoming pro-taxation? I don’t believe so; legislators were willing to cast politically risky votes because the revenue was sorely needed and a majority of their constituents believed the tax proposals were justified. The majority of the legislature chose to govern rather than vote to secure re-election. We need more of this mindset and courage. The primary election results have proven a yes vote on HB1010XX was the right vote.
Time will tell if Oklahoma voters’ revived interest in state politics will hold. I hope it does. Exercising your right to vote is extremely important and impactful; look at the primaries. Now that the primaries are in the rear-view, it’s time to look at the road ahead and move Oklahoma forward.
Marcus McEntire represents Oklahoma House District 50.