Things are heating up at the Capitol as we enter the final few weeks of session. Now is the time where partisanship becomes very visible, and it’s frustrating to be on an endless search of the perfect solution to our budget woes.
That being said, it’s important to keep things in perspective now more than ever. The $878 million hole we’re trying to fill is a real hole: Oklahoma has nearly $900 million less to appropriate than it had last year. When people proclaim that we have a revenue problem, they are absolutely right. But the people who claim the state has a spending problem are also correct. We have both.
On the whole, the state of Oklahoma spent more than $20 billion last year. The vast majority of that is off-the-top money, meaning state lawmakers have no option in how to spend it. Last year, legislators only had a say in where nearly $7 billion went. That amount – that $7 billion – can be thought of as discretionary spending. The rest is called for, much like something that is automatically drafted out of your account each month.
You may remember Standard & Poor’s downgraded Oklahoma’s credit ranking a few months back. Much of that was because of the amount of money that comes off the top of the budget. This becomes a problem when the state revenue declines because we can only adjust a small portion of the spending.
Lawmakers need more control of the budget to better equip our state for various revenue scenarios. Say the breadwinner in your family changed jobs and took a pay cut. It’s only reasonable that you would re-work most of your budget. You’d look at your cable bill, your Netflix subscription and your mortgage itself. It would be unwise to simply think you could balance the budget by scaling back on your discretionary spending. But that’s exactly how things work at the state level.
This $878 million hole is real. If we do not come up with the money to fill it, agencies will see cuts to their budgets. But it’s also artificial. If lawmakers had more control over the off-the-top funds, we could more easily fill the gap and cut unnecessary waste.
The government cannot continue to spend money it does not have. Since our revenues have declined, we need to find a way to drastically scale back spending, or we need to find ways to increase revenue. Ideally, I’d like to see a balance between the two. There’s no doubt waste exists in state government, but we also cannot cut our agencies to the point where they can no longer perform core functions.
As session begins to wrap up, don’t hesitate to reach out. You can call the Capitol office at (405)557-7327 or email Marcus.McEntire@okhouse.gov. Thank you, and God bless.