By Rep. Mike Sanders
I am pleased to again serve as a budget subcommittee chair and member of the full budget committee because thebudget is one of the most important products of the Oklahoma Legislature. Although there are important policy changes lawmakers have made such as reforms to the workers’ compensation and child welfare systems, the meat and potatoes of legislative work is properly allocating your tax dollars to ensure you get the best government service for your investment.
The budget picture for this year is a mixed review. Last year’s budget used a lot of one-time revenue sources. This year, we will fall back to the standard sources. That will mean we have less money and it will be more critical than ever to make the right decisions on how to properly address funding needs.
In Western Oklahoma, we had transportation infrastructure problems for decades. I have been a strong advocate for the recent push to get our roads and bridges into shape to improve public safety and increase economic opportunities for rural communities in my district. I have also been an advocate for Rural Economic Action Plan funding, which goes to local firefighters and law enforcement.
Education is another important budget item. It gets the largest portion of the state budget, but there continues to be the challenge of addressing increased enrollment. We have increased the overall education budget by nearly $200 million in the last two years. Even so, I will continue to work hard to ensure that what available funding there is will go to education and other priorities over non-essential spending.
The Department of Corrections is going to be a primary focus this year. Our prisons are overcrowded and our corrections officers are underpaid to the point that we are not adequately staffing prisons. I will tell you more as the details of these reforms become clear.
Every December, the Oklahoma State Board of Equalization estimates revenues for the next fiscal year. This December, the board estimated less revenue growth for the fiscal year that begins July 1, 2015. The reason for this dip in revenue growth is the recent drop in oil prices and lower prices in agricultural commodity markets. That dip combined with the other factors mentioned above means we are facing a revenue hole of something around $300 million.
Critics of Republican governance are already blaming tax cuts for the estimated deficit. Let me clear things up. Overall, our economy and state revenue have grown. We have had enough growth from Fiscal Year 2014 to Fiscal Year 2016 to meet another income tax cut trigger. The current dip in revenue growth is a product of the oil markets and nothing more. That only accounts for a small portion of the deficit. The remainder of the deficit is due to the loss of one-time revenue sources and increasing off-the-top spending.