Following a contentious 2016 legislative session in which lawmakers scrambled to find the best way to shore up a $1.3 billion budget shortfall, The Oklahoma Academy hit the road to deliver citizen recommendations that would help fix the state’s budget troubles and build a stronger Oklahoma.
About eight months before the last day of session, 150 Oklahomans came together for the academy’s 2015 Town Hall, Oklahoma Priorities: The Government and Taxes We Want.
“Because of the dire situation of the state, we felt it was critical,” said Julie Knutson, CEO and president of The Oklahoma Academy. “Instead of a town hall for 2016, we went out to the communities — as many as we could — and shared the recommendations of the 2015 town hall, but also other recommendations.”
As outlined in the 2015 issue brief, The Oklahoma Academy endorsed a handful of tax and budget reform ideas, like taxing internet sales, authorizing cities and counties to raise revenue from sources other than sales taxes and broadening the sales tax base.
Academy leaders traveled to 30 communities across the state to discuss such proposals. Talks spanned taxes and budgets to issues like consolidating administrative offices of school districts, building a stronger early childhood education system, addressing reforms within the criminal justice system, re-examining the fuel tax and increasing funding to the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services.
“We saw that most people across the state recognized we were in a mess as far as revenue,” Knutson said. “There are a lot of state agencies and departments that are incredibly important, but if you don’t have the money to fund. … You have to prioritize.”
That’s exactly what the 50-year-old nonpartisan nonprofit organization did by putting forward past academy town hall recommendations to citizens, who helped craft the academy’s Strategic Public Policy Goals of 2017-2020.
Since 2001, the academy has enlisted the help of Oklahomans to discuss health, transportation, the economy, municipal government, water, education, criminal justice and more. Each town hall produced a final report outlining policies backed by the participants. While the academy has played a role in the passage of 64 pieces of legislation, many viable recommendations remained untapped.
Two weeks before the start of the state legislative session, Knutson, along with fellow academy leaders, hand-delivered copies of The Oklahoma Academy Strategic Public Policy Goals for 2017-2020, which outlined 30 proposals in areas of mental health, transportation, tribal relations, governance, state budget, health, the economy, education and criminal justice, to the offices of the governor, lieutenant governor and all members of the Legislature.
“The legislative appropriations committees and subcommittees should be more fully integrated in the budget-making process,” said John D. Harper, 2016 academy chairman.
“There is a sense that there needs to be more transparency, more interaction and more collaboration,” Harper said when speaking of one of the most noteworthy recommendations to improve the state budget, taxes and revenue. “In the past, we’ve seen these things happen more towards the end of session where all of a sudden, the budget appears and it’s a hand up and down vote.”
The academy proposes comprehensive reform in the state budgeting process, such as allowing legislators and the public to review the budget for five legislative days prior to a floor vote and demanding measurable goals for each tax incentive.
Some of the recommendations, like consolidating administration in school districts or increasing teacher pay to match salaries offered in surrounding states, aren’t unique to the academy. State lawmakers have floated such recommendations during past sessions.
Another academy goal calls for reviewing “off-the-top” appropriations, which Gov. Mary Fallin has previously backed.
Leaders like this year’s chairman, former U.S. Rep. Dan Boren, are counting on state lawmakers to recognize the role constituents made in developing the goals.
“It’s not a Democrat or Republican solution,” Boren said. “It is grassroots and comes from across the state.”
Already, the academy is learning of proposed legislation that falls in line with its public policy goals, Knutson said.
The group encourages the public to open dialogue with their lawmakers during this session, which began Monday.
“We are really trying to instill that you elect people to represent you in government,” Knutson said. “You have a right and a voice to let lawmakers know what you want. If they don’t hear from you, they will do what they think is best.”
Find The Oklahoma Academy Strategic Public Policy Goals 2017-2020 at okacademy.org.
Print headline: Another try, The Oklahoma Academy revisits past policy recommendations to create a plan that was recently delivered to lawmakers