Thursday, May 03, 2018

OCPA column: Era of Oversight Needed


Era of Oversight Needed

Since 2015, annual taxes and other revenue taken from Oklahomans has increased by $1.1 billion – Oklahomans’ personal income taxes are up at least $185 million annually just since 2016.

Oklahoma government is growing. Some growth is earmarked for teachers and textbooks; other new tax and revenue dollars will go to bail out poorly operated state agencies.

While total state spending is much higher, people often look just at the appropriated budget. This fiscal year’s appropriations budget is about $6.8 billion, and next year’s will jump to more than $7.5 billion.

More than $400 million of the increase will go to teachers and classroom support. The teacher raises passed by the Legislature were even slightly more than what some teachers’ unions demanded.

Unfortunately, some of this increase in government spending will go to bail out agencies like the Oklahoma State Department of Health (OSDH). You might remember that last fall the agency revealed it might not make payroll. Investigative reports suggest the agency had been running an illegal deficit for years.

Meanwhile, the Oklahoma Health Care Authority (OHCA) forgot to tell anyone – for years – that a change in federal policy had compromised funding for state medical schools. That state agency had been warned by the Obama and Trump administrations but did nothing until the funding finally stopped.

Lawmakers are right to require future OSDH, Mental Health, and OHCA CEOs to be subject to direct appointment by the governor. Ultimately, this will ensure greater accountability to voters.

The OHCA and OSDH put the current and upcoming budgets under unnecessary pressure. The situations are a reminder that the most important part of the Legislature’s budget process is oversight. The reason elected state legislators hold the power of the purse is that they are supposed to scrutinize government bureaucracies on behalf of the taxpayers who elect them.

Oklahoma’s Medicaid agency gets the second-largest amount of state appropriations, now $1.1 billion, with an increase this year of $113 million. State health, human services, and welfare agencies combined appropriated budget will increase $168 million and will exceed the entire amount appropriated to K-12 education for fiscal year 2017.

There is a measure this session that will reform a key part of government. Senate Joint Resolution 45 by Sen. Fields and Rep. Echols would take to the ballot a measure that would better utilize $57 million annually. The measure would allow voters to amend the Oklahoma Constitution to improve the use of future tobacco settlement payments. Currently, approximately $57 million a year is deposited into the Oklahoma Tobacco Settlement Endowment Trust (TSET). These deposits continue despite the fact the endowment now sits at $1.1 billion with annual earnings up to $40 million.

TSET funds have been used to promote bars, harass Oklahomans about their intake of juice and other sugary drinks, and distract the embattled state Health Department from its core mission. SJR 45 would require TSET to operate within its current means and redirect future settlement payments to support mental health efforts as a part of non-violent offender justice reform efforts.

For the sake of Oklahoma’s most vulnerable citizens and the recipients of other core services, it’s time for a new era of accountability and transformative reforms in these critical and expensive state agencies.

Jonathan Small serves as president of the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs (www.ocpathink.org).

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