Hamilton: Transparency in state budgeting? It’s a myth

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Arnold Hamilton

With six weeks left in the 2022 session, is it too much to ask that our male-dominated legislature stop its preoccupation with controlling the womb and focus instead on what it was hired to do: properly fund services? vital to the state?

I know I know. This is how the budget writing game is played.

Every year, a cabal of legislative poohbahs gather behind closed doors and hammer out the details, dropping what this year will be a $10 billion spending plan on their roughly 140 colleagues at the last minute.

No time to study, even less to discuss it before sine die. Take it or leave it. But leaving it means a special session. Postpone the holidays. Respond to unpleasant questions from voters about the malfunctioning state capitol.

You wouldn’t want that, would you?

So much for transparency, the favorite buzzword of today’s legislative leaders, no matter how opaque the process.

And, oh, by the way, did you notice the date? As you read this column, today is April 15th. That’s 15 days past the once-vaunted legislative deadline to fund public education for the next fiscal year.

A little history lesson: When Republicans were a legislative minority, they repeatedly bludgeoned Democrats over last-minute budget deals, ultimately forcing them to create an arbitrary funding deadline of April 1 through Grade 12 .

The deadline, of course, was never met, giving the elephants a clever and effective political argument against the donkeys.

But…a not-so-funny thing happened when the GOP took legislative control — it, too, skipped the April 1 deadline. And three years ago, in the last frantic days of session, the Republican supermajority repealed the mythical deadline.

Wash rinse. Repeat.

That’s not to say that the drafters of the legislative budget aren’t already hard at work — they are. Rather, it is to point out that transparency is a myth when it comes to shaping government spending priorities.

All but a few powerful ones are reduced to reading tea leaves for clues. It’s like trying to figure out what was going on in the Kremlin at the height of the Cold War or who’s on the shortlist when the College of Cardinals meets to choose a new pope.

Opacity is particularly problematic this year. The state government is sitting on a pile of cash, thanks to an economy rebounding from the darkest days of COVID-19; skyrocketing energy prices due to consumer demand and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine; and historic injections of federal pandemic relief and stimulus funds.

Senate Appropriations Chairman Roger Thompson, R-Okemah, is right when he urges caution — especially since lawmakers love few things more than tax cuts. But those political pleasures often become tail-biters when the economy slows, as it inevitably will.

Fortunately, the Senate Finance Committee this week rejected Chairman Charles McCall’s Bill 4358, which would have phased out the state’s corporate income tax, eliminating about $23 million in revenue for the fiscal year. 2023, $74 million in FY24 and $130 million in FY’25. More appalling: 81% of profits would have gone to out-of-state companies, according to the Oklahoma Policy Institute.

Most of the nearly $1 billion tax cuts proposed this year were no more than special interest giveaways. Think about it when you consider that Oklahoma’s inflation-adjusted budget is still below 2000 levels, crippling a wide variety of vital public services.

Of course, when the Speaker of the House or the Acting President of the Senate wants something, they usually get it. So the defeat of HB 4358 at the Senate committee does not mean the idea is dead for this session. Neither did Pro Tem Greg Treat’s school voucher scheme (Senate Bill 1647 was defeated by the entire Senate).

Legislative history is replete with last-minute, Lazarus-style resuscitations of bad public policy. Stay tuned.

Arnold Hamilton is editor of The Oklahoma Observer; okobserver.org.

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