Wednesday, February 5, 2014
Weekly Opinion Editorial
by Steve Fair
This week the Oklahoma legislature began their 2014 session. On Monday, Governor Mary Fallin delivered her fourth State of the State address to a joint session of the legislature. Fallin outlined several points in her address:
Fallin proposed that Oklahomans have the opportunity to vote in November on a proposal to allow school districts to pursue a one-time increase in bonding capacity to fund upgrades like storm shelters and school security. “Oklahoma has approximately 1800 schools, each built differently, each with its own unique needs. This measure preserves local control, allowing each school district and community to make their own decisions about how to address those needs,” Fallin said. This is a great idea. Proposals to float a statewide bond issue to put storm shelters in every school in the state doesn’t take into account the needs of each individual district.
Fallin also proposed a $50 million increase in public school education funding. “Improving the quality and outcomes in education is the single most important thing we can do to attract and retain jobs, alleviate poverty, and help Oklahomans have fulfilling and productive lives,” the Governor said. This is a rather small increase, but state leaders and educators need to come up with solutions at improving education other than just increasing funding.
Fallin said her budget for this year includes a budget with up to a five(5) percent cut in state agency funding. “When I was a single mother, I had to take care of my children while cutting a whole lot more than 5 percent from my family budget. I know most Oklahomans have had to make the same kind of tough budgeting choices at times, and we manage,” Fallin said. Fallin said the overall state budget she proposes will be one percent less than last year. She said state agencies needed to operate more efficiently and effectively to cut waste. A one percent decrease in a state budget is better than a increase, but Oklahoma state government needs to undergo a complete and through efficiency audit process to find out where tax dollars are being wasted. It’s time state leaders got serious about finding fraud and waste in our state government.
Fallin said that state government must be more transparent and accountable in budgeting. She mentioned that Oklahoma state government has over $800 million in ‘revolving accounts.” The funds in those accounts are carried over and Fallin said agencies can support critical programs by tapping those funds. I applaud the Governor for exposing these accounts. When state agency heads are carrying over more than what they are getting from the legislature in appropriations annually, perhaps they need to forego funding for a year.
Fallin said she wanted the state to float a bond to repair the state Capitol building. “A bond issue could not come at a better time. Interest rates are low. Most importantly, 41 percent of the state’s bond indebtedness will come off the books in 2018, and over 86 percent will be eliminated in the next 13 years, Fallin said. Borrowing money is never a good idea, particularly when it puts our kids and grandkids in debt. If state agencies have the money in their ‘revolving accounts,’ maybe the legislature and state leaders need to rent the movie, “Dave,” and watch the scene where he carves out funding for a worthy cause in a public meeting.
Fallin also addressed the underfunded state pension plans. “Moving to a defined contribution model helps us to modernize and accomplishes two important goals. First, it allows flexibility for future public employees to take the money they have accrued with them if they change careers. Second, it stabilizes the system for current public employees and retirees. Oklahoma pension systems currently have $11 billion in unfunded liabilities. The system as it stands today is not financially sound or sustainable,” Fallin said. I agree new employees shouldn’t be forced into a system that is unsteady, and moving to a defined contribution program makes sense, but those changes don’t really address the $11 billion debt. Will state government float bonds for that? Will the legislature commit to an annual appropriation to fix the pension plans- which would be substantial amount each year? Remember, past legislatures- under Democrat control- failed to fund the plans as promised and that is what got us in this mess. The pension issue may be the most important one the legislature will take up in the 2014 session.
Stay tuned- legislative sessions are always a great spectator sport. As Will Rogers said, “When the Oklahoma legislature is in session, neither man nor beast nor property is safe.”