Monday, July 21, 2014


Weekly Opinion Editorial
by Steve Fair
     An earmark is a legislative provision that directs approved funds to be spent on specific projects. There are two types- Individual legislative earmarks and earmarks of specific funds by the legislature to fund specific projects.  Individual legislative earmarks are nothing more than ‘reelection tokens.’  An individual legislative earmark allows an incumbent elected official brags about how much taxpayer dollars he or she brought back to the district and the grateful constituents reward them with their votes.  It’s a disgusting practice that is unfortunately defended by conservatives and liberals alike.  One prominent Republican lawmaker argued with me about earmarks stating that elected officials were given the ‘power of the purse.’  The same elected official says the moratorium on earmarks has given more power to President Obama.  But the power of the purse is not given to legislators individually, but collectively.  No elected official should be given the absolute sovereign authority to determine a public project is worthy of funding or not worthy.  If a project deserves funding, let it go through the regular budgetary process.  Thankfully, earmarks at the federal level have lost their popularity because of lawmakers like Senator Coburn and others who refuse to take earmarks.
     Another type of earmark is one that directs revenue into a specific fund or to a specific project.  An example of this type of earmark in Oklahoma is HB # 1017.  Passed and signed into law in 1990, #1017 was challenged and Oklahoma voters rejected repealing the new law in a 1991 statewide vote (54% to 46%).  HB#1017 increased by ½ cent and directed the increase to common education.  #1017 also increased the state corporate income tax by 1% with the increase being earmarked for education.  It’s debatable as to how effective #1017 has been in improving education in the Sooner state.  Student test scores have certainly not risen as much as taxes since 1990 and classroom teachers still remain near the bottom in the U.S. in pay, but nevertheless #1017 is the will of the people. 
     Another earmark is one for the Oklahoma Department of Transportation.  In 2006, ODOT came up with a plan that would allocate six billion dollars of state revenue- OFF THE TOP- for road and bridges in the state over an eight year period.  After Republicans took control of the legislature, they begin the task of addressing the state’s long neglected infrastructure(crumbling roads and bridges) and the eight year plan was passed and signed into law.  Good legislation and good policy for a state that had led the nation in diversion of federal highway funds to other uses.
     In a recent editorial, The Oklahoman attacked the ‘earmarks’ and advocated changing the legislative budgeting process in Oklahoma, but offered no details on what to change.  They wrote that Oklahoma tax revenue, ending June 30th, was up $469 million; however monies going into the state General Revenue account was up less than 1/3 of 1%.  The Oklahoman rightly said this gives the impression the state’s economy is flat, when in fact it is doing well. Their point is if a taxpayer is not paying attention, he might get the impression state government is broke when just the opposite is true.  Good points, but do we need to eliminate ‘earmarks?’  Two thoughts:
     First, what the numbers actually show is the 2014 state legislature had very little increased money to ‘appropriate,’ this year.  Oklahoma state government revenue is around $11 billion annually, but the legislature only gets to dole out $7 billion.   That is not necessarily a bad thing.  If we want state government to be ‘streamlined and efficient,’ then giving the legislature less money to operate state government has to be a good thing.  Forcing state agencies to find ways to do more with less is good policy.
     Second, not all earmarks are created equal.  Using the two examples cited above; #1017 is the will of the people and a part of the state constitution.  It must be funded.  The eight year ODOT plan is state law and would require legislative action to be changed.  How is setting aside money for a worthy cause- OFF THE TOP- a bad thing?  The Oklahoman was critical of these earmarks because, “they were outside the budgetary process.”  But both of these earmarks have not been a part of the budgetary process for several years.  Why question them now?  Are they proposing that #1017 be repealed?  Do they want the eight year ODOT and education funding be reviewed every year by the legislature? That would be a step backward in Oklahoma.  Taking money OFF THE TOP for priority spending is good policy. 
      The term ‘earmark’ has rightfully earned a bad reputation- think ‘bridge to nowhere,’ but these particular earmarks are ones that are the will of the people of Oklahoma. They aren’t reelection tokens.

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