Republican legislative leadership recently unveiled its 2010 legislative agenda. In it, they outlined their hope of targeting reforms to Oklahoma’s education system, workers’ compensation system and modernizing state government. Additionally, individual legislators have announced specific legislation related to everything from reforming marriage to cutting taxes.
However, the only issue certain to be discussed this session is how to create a budget framework for Oklahoma in which potentially more than $1 billion in spending must be eliminated.
The year 2010 is ripe with choices for legislators tasked with crafting such a budget. How they handle the issue could have a significant impact years from now if future officials are faced with similar shortfalls.
The reactionary response by the Legislature thus far has been an across-the-board cut of each agency’s budget. However, for a Republican-controlled Legislature generally made up of those elected on the premise that state government is too large and should be trimmed, another across-the-board cut will look like a benign response that will smack of fear.
Republicans have a perfect opportunity to seize the debate on the essential role of government in a 21st century Oklahoma, and then craft a targeted plan on improving the areas of greatest need while trimming and eliminating areas with little role in providing a more prosperous decade for each and every Oklahoman.
There are, no doubt, agencies in Oklahoma that need a budget increase and some that could stand to be reduced in size or eliminated all together. There is also no doubt that cuts are going to happen. That is settled.
However, it will come as no surprise when overpaid agency heads cry foul because their budget is reduced.
There is no room for shortsighted and self-serving leadership in today’s economic climate.
Every state official in a budget drafting capacity should begin by taking no less than a 2 percent pay cut immediately. That includes legislators. Leadership is rare, and it will be a rare thing to see the kind of leadership we need at this crucial time.
However, I’m optimistic that we will see House and Senate leaders take on the issue in good faith. We are fortunate at this point in our state’s history to have two leaders in both chambers that are not running for anything in 2010. Both Sen. Glenn Coffee, R-Oklahoma City, and House Speaker Chris Benge, R-Tulsa, are term-limited in 2010 and have not announced their intention of running for anything at this time. That places them in the rare position of unleveraged authority.
Republicans have campaigned for more than 10 years for the opportunity before them this legislative session.
Communities across Oklahoma, and especially here in the metro, have been inundated with campaign material from candidates looking for the opportunity to implement growth-minded policies that create a leaner, more efficient state government. It is time for leaders to step forward and make those decisions for which they asked responsibility.
Republican legislators should not support a simple across-the-board cut. It’s time to get their hands dirty and apply substantive ideas to the task at hand. Be bold, because it’s time to put up or shut up.
Smith is an attorney living in Oklahoma City.