Monday, January 26, 2015
Weekly Opinion Editorial
TERM LIMIT PROPOSALS- ONE GOOD/ONE BAD!
by Steve Fair
Last week, 1,219 bills and 26 joint resolutions were filed in the Oklahoma House of Representatives. Over in the Senate 815 bills and 34 joint resolutions were filed. Thankfully not all the bills will make it out of committee and get to the floor for a vote. I want to spotlight two of the joint resolutions filed in the House that deal with term limits- one for the legislature and one for county elected officials.
State Representative Paul Wesselhoft, (R-Moore), has filed a joint resolution to ask voters if they want to vote on legislative term limits again. “Each time we term out we lose good people with a great deal of knowledge and leadership,” Wesselhoft said. “This empowers the lobbyist and the directors of agencies, which gives them too much influence over government. This bill will not apply to any of the representatives voting on it. This is for future legislators only.”
State Representative Dennis Johnson, (R-Duncan), has filed a joint resolution that if approved by the voters would limit county elected officials to sixteen years(16) in office- four-4 year terms. “We have term limits for our statewide elected officials and the legislature. I believe it is time to let the people decide if they want to extend that to their county elected officials,” Johnson said.
Here are my thoughts on the two proposals:
First, Wesselhoft is absolutely correct that lobbyists and state agency bureaucrats have too much influence in what goes on at 23rd and Lincoln. He is also correct that term limits allow influence peddlers and special interests to simply ‘wait out’ a legislator who is questioning their budget or policies. But Wesselhoft’s solution to eliminate term limits is not the answer. The long term answer is to elect individuals that are knowledgeable and informed when they arrive. All too often newly elected legislators are green as grass and special interests and influence peddlers are more than happy to ‘educate’ them. That is the basic fundamental problem and Wesselhoft’s solution won’t change that.
It is particularly frustrating when newly elected lawmakers listen to special interest groups more than those that elected them, but it is doubly aggravating when it is a veteran legislator. In recent sessions, veteran Republican legislators have proposed bills that conflict with the Oklahoma Republican Party platform. When confronted about the inconsistency, they either pled ignorance or said the platform was wrong on that issue and they were right. In 2014, National Popular Vote and Common Core were the most glaring reminders that state lawmakers had no idea- or didn’t care- what their constituents thought about an issue. Instead of listening to lobbyists and special interests, legislators should be talking to those in their district about the issues. Eliminating term limits won’t fix that problem.
Second, term limits have been good for Oklahoma. During the 100 year ‘reign of terror’ by the Democrat Party in Oklahoma, legislators served for decades. The result was a corrupt, good ole boy system of government that created a business environment that hurt growth and recruitment. After term limits and ultimately Republican control, substantive issues like tort reform, workers comp reform, infrastructure, and pension reform have been addressed. Oklahoma’s state legislature has accomplished more in the past 14 years than the first 100 years and that is partially due to term limits.
Representative Johnson’s proposal would simply send to a vote of the people a question on whether they want to extend term limits to county elected officials. Term limits allows for turnover in elective office. That is a good thing. Those offices belong to the people, not to the office holder.
The arrogance of someone believing they are indispensable and term limits shouldn’t be imposed on them slays me. No one is indispensable or so important they can’t be replaced. Let someone else function in that position. When we-the Republicans- were pushing for legislative term limits back in the 1980s, Democrats moaned and said passing term limits would cause the legislature to suffer from a lack of ‘institutional knowledge.’ That lack of ‘institutional knowledge’ has been good for Oklahoma. So will Johnson’s proposal for Oklahoma county government. Contact your local state legislator and encourage them to support Johnson’s House Joint Resolution on term limits.
Monday, January 19, 2015
Weekly Opinion Editorial
BUDGET SESSION EVERY OTHER YEAR?
by Steve Fair
State Representative Randy Grau, (R-Oklahoma City), is presenting a proposal in the upcoming Oklahoma legislative session that would have the legislature deal with ‘budget’ issues exclusively in even numbered years. It would restrict legislators from taking up policy issues or considering constitutional amendments to only odd numbered years.
“There is a lot of momentum right now for a better budget process,” Grau said. “The best way to improve that process is to cut down the number of distractions, at least for one year out of every two. In the years in which the budget was the exclusive goal, your state lawmakers will have four months, as opposed to two weeks, to engage in a meaningful review of government needs and a thorough discussion on funding priorities.” Grau continued, “Another benefit of the change would be a reduction in the number of new laws passed. Considering policy changes every other year will help ensure that legislators focus on what is most important to Oklahomans.”
Before Grau’s proposal becomes reality, it must pass both chambers of the legislature and be approved by a vote of the people.
First, Grau is absolutely right. There is not enough time devoted to the appropriation/budgeting process by the Oklahoma legislature. Every legislative session includes a budget scramble that closely resembles a disorganized fire drill. The state government budget becomes secondary to meaningless ‘feel good’ laws. Setting aside a ‘budget’ session every other year makes sense. If properly executed, it would allow the legislature to insure Oklahoma’s tax dollars are allocated in a more efficient way. Texas currently uses this system.
Second, Grau’s proposal should include a move to zero based or needs based budgeting in Oklahoma state government. While we are voting to amend the constitution, let’s do it right. Needs based budgeting requires that any budget request be started from a zero base. Every line item of the budget must be approved, not just the changes. Currently, Oklahoma state government uses Historic Budgeting, which is a process where agency heads only justify variances in their budget. Historic Budgeting ‘assumes’ their baseline budget(what they got last year) is automatically approved. Sure it will be more work for state government workers, but after all it is taxpayer money.
Third, Needs based budgeting is a growing concept in other states. No less than eighteen states across the U.S. are either using or considering requiring agencies justify every penny of tax dollars they want in their budget. Texas has used zero based budgeting. Back in 2003, when Texas faced a budget shortfall, Governor Rick Perry sent the legislature a budget with zeros next to each agency, requiring the legislature to dig into each agency’s request line by line. Many credit Perry’s move as to why Texas was able to keep state government under control the last ten years.
Fourth, Grau is right about the volume of ‘policy bills’ passed by the Oklahoma legislature. It still remains to be seen if the amount of ‘policy’ bills would be substantially reduced if Grau’s proposal was approved by Oklahoma voters. A high percentage of the policy laws passed every year are state agency requested, basically government managing government. Most of these policy bills are redundant and largely unnecessary.
If Grau’s HJR passes the legislature and gets on the ballot, odds are voters would approve it. That would be a good first step to force the Oklahoma legislature to take seriously the most important job they have- allocating tax dollars. Adding zero-based budgeting would be a needed tool to force agency bureaucrats to take the budget process seriously. Contact your state legislator and tell them to support HJR 1001 when it comes up for consideration.
Monday, January 12, 2015
Weekly Opinion Editorial
HEALTHY, PRODUCTIVE AND WISE!
by Steve Fair
On Monday, Governor Mary Fallin and eight other statewide elected officials were sworn into office. Six of the statewides were sworn in for their second term. Here are some observations from the swearing in ceremony.
First, it was cold. The temperature was below 30 degrees with a wind chill factor in the teens.
Four years ago, when Fallin and the other statewides were sworn in, it was cold and snowy, but Monday’s conditions were worse. The program progressed smoothly, with just a few glitches, most noticeably the delayed entrance by the Governor. The attendance was not as high as it was four years ago, which is understandable since all those sworn in with the exception of Todd Hiett (Corporation Commissioner) and Joy Huffmeister (Superintendent of Public Instruction) were being sworn in for their second term.
Second, the Oklahoma Constitution requires Oklahoma Corporation Commissioner’s take a specific oath of office in addition to the one the other statewide officials take. The long, detailed CC oath always draws a few chuckles from the crowd for the ‘attention to detail’ it outlines for a new Commissioner. You can see the full oath on the Corporation Commission website. Obviously the lengthy oath was intended to gain the commitment of the Commissioner to be honest and fair in their dealings on the Commission by including virtually every known entity the Commissioner will interact with.
Third, after taking the oath of office for her second term, Governor Fallin outlined three key areas where she believes the Sooner state needs to improve: education, incarceration, and health. Let’s look each area individually.
First, Education. “Education beyond high school is absolutely “the new minimum” for success in the workforce. If we can increase our educational attainment as a state, we will benefit from everything from higher earnings to less crime, less teen pregnancy, and less reliance on government aid, saving taxpayers money,” Fallin said. According to the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), Oklahoma ranks #41st in the U.S. in education attainment. ALEC points out Oklahoma’s education ‘policy’ is fairly good and grades it B-, so where is the disconnect? Why is the policy not producing? The real issue is Oklahoma’s education dollar is being swallowed up in non-classroom activities. Oklahoma has over 500 school districts and each of those districts have buildings, buses and administrators. Over 50% of every dollar allocated for education in Oklahoma goes to a non-classroom related activity. This has not changed in over 40 years. That is proof that good policy will never produce good results. The fundamental infrastructure of Oklahoma education must be addressed. Oklahoma leaders need to commit to improving education in Oklahoma, but not by just throwing more money at it.
Second, Incarceration. According to the National Institute of Corrections, Oklahoma’s crime rate is 22% higher than the national average. Our violent crime rate is 26% higher. Oklahoma’s incarceration rate is +67% higher than the national average. Only two states- Mississippi and Louisiana- have higher rates. Oklahoma has the highest incarceration rate for women in the country. Fallin said she was committed to working with the legislature to help non-violent offenders get their life back on track. “Here’s the sad truth: many of our inmates are non-violent offenders with drug abuse and alcohol problems. They don’t need to spend long stints at the state penitentiary, where they can join gangs and acquire criminal networks. They need treatment; they need supervision; and they need to be returned to their communities as sober adults ready to support themselves and their families,” Fallin said.
Third, Health. According to the United Health Foundation, Oklahoma ranks #46 in the U.S. in overall health. We have high rates of cancer and heart disease due to smoking. We have high rates of obesity and diabetes. In her remarks, Fallin set a goal to reduce deaths due to heart disease. “One of the big indicators of overall health – because it is so closely linked to smoking, obesity, and nutrition – is prevalence of heart disease. Let’s set an aggressive goal: to reduce heart disease deaths in Oklahoma by 25 percent between now and 2025. If we are successful, and I believe we will be, that alone will save over 2,400 lives every year,” Fallin said.
Fallin concluded her remarks by saying, “Collectively, we should all commit to working together so Oklahoma will be a place where our children and their children can stay and find great opportunities in healthy, strong and safe communities; a place where they can pursue their dreams, get a good education and a good-paying job.” Amen- now it’s time to go to work and make it happen.
Monday, January 5, 2015
Weekly Opinion Editorial
Walk the Walk!
by Steve Fair
The Oklahoma state Board of Equalization is composed of six Oklahoma statewide elected officials and one appointee. The Governor chairs the Board and the rest of the board include the Lt. Governor, the State Auditor, State Treasurer, Attorney General, Superintendent of Public Instruction, and the Secretary of Agriculture (the appointee). The Board is responsible for certifying the amount of money the state legislature will have available for appropriation in the coming fiscal year. The projected revenue for FY 2016 is expected to be $60.7 million more than FY 2014. Because of the increase in revenue a provision of SB #1246 was triggered which reduced the top rate of the state income tax from 5.25% to 5%.
All seven Equalization Board members agreed the revenue requirements of SB #1246 had been satisfied, but not all board members believe the automatic trigger mechanism regarding the income tax put in place by the Oklahoma Legislature in 2011 was a good idea. State Treasurer Ken Miller said, “My vote was in no way an endorsement of the policy. As I cautioned before the bill’s passage, tax triggers are illogical from an economic perspective. I can think of no financial reason to pass a measure predicated on future revenue growth when policymakers could simply have waited to preserve flexibility for challenges — like the $300 million budget hole announced today.”
The board approved an estimate of $6,914,776,463 in available revenue for the FY 2016. That is $298.1 million, or 4.1 percent, less than the legislatively-approved FY 15 appropriated state budget of $7,212,855,361. State Auditor Gary Jones, while voting for the motion to approve said, “I think in the future we ought to be dealing with actual numbers rather than estimated numbers from the past. It wasn’t necessary to make this decision now if the Legislature had given us the maximum amount of time to make that decision.”
The Oklahoma State Constitution requires the board to meet again in late February to make a second estimate that will be used in negotiations between the governor and legislators to determine FY 16 appropriations levels for state agencies. Unless the price of a barrel of oil increases, it appears FY 2015 will be a down budget year for Oklahoma government.
According to Preston Doerflinger, Secretary of Finance, Administration and Information Technology, the February certification is more relevant than the December estimate. “If oil prices continue sliding and the energy sector shrinks, there may be less revenue in February than there is today – we’ll see. In any event, the challenge is not insurmountable and we can and will manage it,” Doerflinger said. The governor says the current budget process in Oklahoma takes too much revenue out of the picture and significantly reduces the amount of money the legislature has to appropriate each year. “It leaves very little wiggle room for us to be able to prioritize where our money’s going to go, especially as needs in the state change. That’s not a good way to budget. It doesn’t give us the flexibility that we need. That’s why we saw a little bit of a revenue shortfall last year, because all of the money was already allocated to other spending priorities,” Governor Fallin said.
State Auditor and Inspector Gary Jones said he is going to encourage the State Senate to require state agencies to prepare a ‘needs based’ budget. “Needs based budgeting is a modified version of zero-based budgeting. It requires budget requests be based on what you need and requires the agency look at all revenue sources before you ask for an appropriation, including what you have in a reserve fund. In many cases, they’re getting more revenue than they’re spending and they continue to build this (reserves) up,” Jones said.
Jones believes the current budget process is shortsighted and doesn’t take into account the volatile nature of the revenue stream. “We don’t have any long-range plans on budget projections,” he said. “We’re always looking at just the next year. We’ve got to start looking longer than that, because you look at the peaks and valleys.”
If the 2015 Oklahoma state legislature has four percent less revenue to appropriate this year to state agencies, that presents a real opportunity for self-described fiscal conservative lawmakers. Oklahoma government is ripe to be right-sized, just like in the campaign literature. Instead of simply enacting one size fits all/across the board cuts as they have done in the past, legislative leaders should take Jones’ advice and require state agencies to justify every penny they request in their FY 2015 budget. Stockpiles of reserve funds sitting in agency accounts should be publicly disclosed and considered before another nickel of tax dollars are given to an agency. GOP leaders- time to walk the walk, not just talk the talk.