In a budget year that is going to end up having a shortfall of close to $400 million after federal assistance, the conventional wisdom says there are two options: raise taxes or cut budgets. I believe that real leadership is needed to not go down the same path of the past.
There are two areas to save or raise funds that are seldom discussed. They could be difficult to change, but would have long-term benefits and help the state budget for years to come.
First, there are more than 500 school districts in Oklahoma. Most districts have a superintendent, assistant superintendent and other officials.
Arkansas, a comparable state, had hundreds of districts at one time. They are now down to about 200. Republicans make the mistake by getting into an argument over rural high schools being closed, but this is about bureaucratic waste and duplication. For those that say it can’t be done, Oklahoma once had 1,000 districts and so we have consolidated, it just took 100 years.
The teachers unions and State Superintendent Sandy Garrett come to the Legislature every year wanting more money. Here is a way we can get more money to the classroom without having to raise taxes. The savings would be immediate. If we had just 100 administrators, we could save millions a year that we are currently spending.
The second area where leadership could save is a budget trick the agencies of Oklahoma would rather keep quiet: revolving funds. They are essentially leftover funds each agency sets aside, or they are money that the agency generates itself. Money left over and funds generated are not the problem ” the accounting of it is. Agencies don’t have to account for it and can keep it year to year, and it does not appear anywhere in the budget process.
When it comes budget time, this extra money does not go into the equation, so in reality agencies could be flush with money but plead to the Legislature that the well is dry.
How broad and deep is this problem? We don’t know, and good luck trying to get an answer out of the state auditor or treasurer offices. Usually, revolving funds are designated for a specific reason or purpose, but if it is unaccounted for, who is watching and making the agency accountable?
If we are to change these two areas, make them more transparent, we need real leadership. Term limits have capped the institutional knowledge of the legislators, and dealing with these challenges is not easy, but we need to look at new ways of doing things. The Republicans have taken over both the state House and Senate. Let’s hope change comes with new leadership.
We as Oklahomans should not just have knee-jerk reactions to budget shortfalls. We should use this as a time to come up with creative solutions that do not raise taxes in this tough economy. We need real solutions to real problems.
Loveless, a former state Senate candidate, is the CEO of Phoenix Consulting and business manager for Loveless Orthopedic and Custom Footwear.