As the national recession drags on, it has become abundantly clear that Oklahoma cannot avoid a financial disaster. Golden opportunities to invest in our future were lost when revenues were high. Without long-term vision, we failed to properly fund our “best” education system or improve our workforce development. Our state further failed to shrink government bureaucracy with efficiencies (including agency and school administrative consolidations), fund EDGE or even provide basic health care to hundreds of thousands of our fellow citizens.
With revenue collections down more than 20 percent from last year and no foreseeable economic rebound on the near horizon, relatively high unemployment in Oklahoma chills both new hiring and business expansions. A diversified tax base so carefully crafted over 20 years by governors of both political parties was systemically undermined in recent years to the tune of more than $1 billion. These thoughtless, although popular, tax cuts were passed with wide, bipartisan support when record high and unsustainable severance tax collections were pouring into the state’s general fund, from 2005 until late 2008. It’s as if the painful lessons of the depression in Oklahoma during the 1980s were completely forgotten or never learned.
Now, legislative debate centers only on more draconian cuts to education, health care, public safety, transportation and other priorities, while talk circulates at the Capitol that a special session is in order to tap what funds are readily available from the Rainy Day Fund. At best, these steps will only balance the budget through June of 2010 at the current, much-reduced rate! What passes for long-term planning in Oklahoma now apparently means state government lives day to day, month to month. It should give no thoughtful Oklahoman comfort when some critics say it could be worse.
Now is the time for unprecedented leadership from Gov. Brad Henry and the well-paid Legislature. Our problems are systemic and likely will only get worse unless this state’s leadership makes hard choices from admittedly an array of politically unpalatable options. With experience at the Capitol decreased by term limits, perhaps it’s time for a blue-ribbon task force of former legislators, in concert with business, labor and education leaders, to recommend sweeping government reforms. Businesses and families adopt lean operating principles in tough times to survive, and so must our state. To succeed, the task force must ask state employees to do even more with less, reduce agencies’ size through attrition, combine similar functions (law enforcement and regulatory overlap readily come to mind), lock up many thousands fewer non-violent offenders and finally, repeal numerous and wasteful tax credits that alone account for over $1 billion in lost revenue.
If these steps are taken soon, our new governor, to be elected in 2010, will have a fighting chance to right the ship of state and invest in what matters most, while privatizing or abolishing lesser needs.
We really have no other choice, because at the moment, we are staring into a fiscal abyss that has the potential, if not addressed, to relegate Oklahoma to the permanent and shameful status economically, socially and educationally of a third-world country. All the simple, easy and wrong answers have been tried, and because of that, we are in dire straits.
Busey, an Edmond resident, is chairman and CEO of The Busey Group of Companies. Hobson, a Norman resident, is former president pro tempore of the Oklahoma state Senate.