Monday, May 6, 2013

Budget could be better!

Weekly Opinion Editorial

by Steve Fair
Governor Fallin and legislative leaders have agreed on a budget for Fiscal Year 2014.  The proposed budget includes a $91 million dollar increase for common education, a $33 million dollar increase for Higher Ed and a $3 million dollar increase for Career Tech.  It also gives the Oklahoma Health Care Authority a $40 million increase, the Department of Mental Health an additional $17 million and the Department of Human Services an increase of $44 million.  Overall the budget will increase $267 million over this year’s budget. 

This is the third year in a row the Republican led legislature has spent more money than the previous year, which prompted Michael Carnuccio of the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs (OCPA), the state’s leading free market think tank, to tell CapitolBeatOK, “For the third budget cycle in a row, Republican control of state government has produced increased government spending, no immediate tax cuts for families, and continued earmarks for pet projects.”

OCPA has been pushing the legislature to work toward total elimination of the state income tax.  While no one wants to pay any more tax than they should, it should be noted OCPA’s income tax elimination plan did not include equal cuts to the spending side of the ledger.  A better well thought plan on the elimination of the income tax must be fleshed out before it is implemented and that plan must include cuts to government.

A couple of observations on the proposed budget:

First, Oklahoma continues to pour money down the education rat hole without getting substantive returns.  We are spending three times more on common education in the Sooner state than we were just 25 years ago.  No other state agency has experienced an increase of such magnitude during that period.  It’s a lead pipe cinch the average Oklahoman’s income has not tripled in the past 25 years.  Our leaders continue to dodge the real issue in Oklahoma- WE HAVE TOO MANY SCHOOL DISTRICTS AND ADMINISTRATORS!  There are 527 school districts in Oklahoma, each with a superintendent and district staff.  294 of those schools have less than 500 students. The simple economies-of-scale rule should warn us that we’re spending a lot of money that never gets near a classroom where it really would make a difference. 
As of 2011, Oklahoma had over 3400 school administrators, earning an average of $74,858, or about one administrator for every 12 teachers. That's an increase of about 15% in the number of administrators in the past 15 years— even though the total number of school districts in the state has declined slightly.   

Oklahoma spends over 50% of the money allocated for common education on non-classroom related expenditures.  With all that increase in funding, you would expect our students to have showed significant improvements, but ACT scores have remained at about the same level they were in 1990.  It’s clear that throwing more money at education is not the key to educating children- at least not the way we are doing it.

Second, this budget does nothing to address waste in state government.  It simply continues to fund the status quo.  The one size fits all mentality in budgeting will never reveal the real areas where substantive cuts should be made.  “Across the board” cuts and increases reward the wasteful agency and penalize the prudent ones.  The legislature should consider ‘zero based budgeting,’ where every item in an agencies budget is justified.  It will be a lot more work for agency heads and legislature leaders, but if Oklahoma is serious about making government more efficient and productive, it must be done.

Third, the ‘pay as we go’ plan on fixing the Capitol and other state buildings is the right thing to do.  Mortgaging (issuing bonds) our kids and grandkid’s future is never a good idea and I applaud the Governor and the legislature for finding a more responsible way to fix the crumbling Capital building.

While the budget could have been far better had it addressed wasteful spending, it does address some important issues such as infrastructure and public safety in a responsible way.  I would encourage legislative leaders to require zero based budgeting from all state agencies when they submit next year’s requests and to address education funding in a responsible way.

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