Counterpoint: Money fights

The 2010 Oklahoma legislative session, which began Feb. 1, could be bitter and contentious as leaders determine how the state will deal with its worst budget crisis since the Great Depression.
It could get ugly on a historic level.

With majorities in both the House and Senate, along with help from conservative Democrats up for re-election, the Republicans will mostly be calling the shots on how the state will deal with a shortfall that could top $1 billion this fiscal year and a predicted $1.3 billion next fiscal year. Tax hikes, of course, are out of the question in the current political milieu, and cuts to state agencies will be devastating unless state revenues stage a dramatic comeback.

Even after using Rainy Day Fund money, the budget picture remains bleak.

In an ideological sense, it must be a dream come true for the state’s neo-conservatives who want to “starve the beast” by slashing government. Recent tax cuts and declining state revenues tied to natural gas production taxes have given conservatives an opportunity to implement their ideology and perhaps make permanent changes throughout state government and education.

Bitter fights between political factions inside and outside the Capitol could result over any bill that isn’t revenue neutral and over the proposed cuts. Will the GOP work with Gov. Brad Henry to make surgical cuts to the budget to protect education, health systems and social services? Or will the GOP push for across-the-board cuts?

Either way, turf wars are bound to erupt as state agencies and their legislative supporters plead for money or smaller cuts. Should the corrections department take a bigger cut than, say, education? Who should lose their jobs or be furloughed? Teachers and correctional officers? Social workers and office staff? Should the state cut mental health programs, knowing this only creates more social problems? Are all new multiyear programs or projects that cost money off the table for the conceivable future? Will the GOP pursue even more tax cuts in this precarious time?

State Treasurer Scott Meacham, who has called the revenue crisis the worst since the Great Depression, has been clear about how state leaders should try to avoid permanent damage to the “government infrastructure,” according to a recent media report. But that could be impossible, and at least some Republicans see this crisis as an opportunity, according to another report. Henry’s veto pen and his negotiating skills can only do so much in a financial crisis of this magnitude.

Last November, for example, the National Conference of State Legislatures reported Oklahoma has the largest budget deficit on a percentage basis than any other state.
Without more revenue, it may that mean long-lasting damage is simply unavoidable.

The Senate could be especially contentious because the GOP only holds a slight majority and because of what some political insiders are claiming is a brewing schism between moderate and conservative Republicans.

Ideological bills will and should be criticized as superfluous in a time of financial crisis.
The Legislature could rise above it all, come together with Henry and make sure the state’s long-term prospects remain intact, but the state’s financial crisis will make it difficult. It’s impossible to overstate the issue. What happens in the current legislative session could affect Oklahoma’s educational systems and vital services for years to come.

Hochenauer is an English professor at the University of Central Oklahoma and the author of the Okie Funk blog.

Kurt Hochenauer

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