Budget & Tax, Education

Democrats attack bills, then vote for them

May 23, 2019

Ray Carter

House Democrats decried portions of this year’s budget plan on Thursday, but then voted for bills they said either provided insufficient funding or misspent money.

During the floor hearing on Senate Bill 1048, which provides funding for education, House Democrats argued school funding was insufficient, criticized the decision to place $200 million into state savings, and argued taxes should be increased.

“Wouldn’t you agree that we need to do more than rely on socking away money and counting on oil prices to be high?” said Rep. John Waldron, D-Tulsa. “We need a fair tax structure that supports the needs of education every year whether or not oil is booming or we have a lot of money sitting in an account.”

Rep. Toni Hasenbeck, an Elgin Republican and former teacher who carried SB 1048 on the House floor, noted this year’s K-12 budget is “the most robust education funding package in state history.” The K-12 appropriation exceeded $3 billion for the first time this year and included funding for a $1,200 teacher pay raise, the second pay raise in two years.

“We need to continue to move forward,” Hasenbeck said. “We need to keep saving money. We need to keep planning for the next economic downturn.”

Rep. Shane Stone, D-Oklahoma City, also criticized the decision to increase state savings for future downturns.

“There’s a lot of money that needs to be put into education to get it back to where it needs to be,” Stone said. “Don’t you wish, and wouldn’t you agree, that it would be great if we just had $200 million sitting around doing nothing this year that we could use to better fund education?”

“I know that my hair is luxurious, and that might make you think that I’m a little too young to have lived through a school system when we had crude oil at $37 a barrel,” Hasenbeck said. “But I’m going to tell you that if we don’t have that savings sitting around, we are going to be having those same conversations 10 years from now when crude oil does get to $37 a barrel. We’re going to have teachers laid off. We’re going to have kindergarteners in classrooms with 38 students. If we keep savings and we keep adding to that savings, we will never have to suffer through the losses when crude oil does go to $37 a barrel.”

Rep. Emily Virgin, D-Norman, conceded that this year’s budget provides a “significant increase” to education, but said House Democrats are “a little uncomfortable with patting ourselves on the back and saying, ‘What a great job we’ve done.’” She noted the Oklahoma Department of Education’s initial budget request totaled roughly $400 million.

The Department of Education request, if approved by lawmakers, would have consumed about two-thirds of this year’s surplus.

Hasenbeck noted state agencies’ budget requests are often far larger than what they receive.

“It is typical for agencies to ask way more than they expect to get,” Hasenbeck said.

She said the job of legislative budget committees is to examine agencies and “find out what their actual priorities are,” and not simply take budget requests at face value.

Although lawmakers had roughly $600 million more to spend this year than last year, the combined budget requests submitted by state agencies would have increased spending by an additional $1.99 billion.

SB 1048 passed on an 89-1 vote with all but one Democrat voting in support.

Senate Bill 1051, which provides funding to the Department of Health, also drew criticism from the Democratic side of the aisle. Rep. Forrest Bennett, D-Oklahoma City, questioned “the wisdom of sending $2 million” to crisis pregnancy centers, which provide support to pregnant women but not abortions.

“I wonder if you share my concern that we’re sending $2 million to these centers that are not going to be able to do everything that an expectant mother or a family may need?” Bennett said.

“They do provide compassionate services for women,” said Rep. Marcus McEntire, R-Duncan, pointing to the centers’ provision of everything from counseling to diapers.

“I think a lot of these are religiously affiliated and I wonder about the legality there,” Bennett said. “And two, there are other clinics in Oklahoma and across the country that provide all of those same services, plus more, and yet we vilify them in this building.”

Courts have ruled that religiously affiliated providers may receive state funds so long as they provide a state service in a nondiscriminatory manner.

While $1.9 million was provided in the bill for federally qualified health centers, Bennett noted there are about 93 such centers in Oklahoma, compared to roughly 30 crisis pregnancy centers that will receive a separate $2 million. He suggested funding should have been doubled for the federally qualified health centers rather than provide any money to crisis pregnancy centers.

“There’s always more than one way to skin a cat, right?” McEntire responded. “So this is just another service that can be available to pregnant women.”

SB 1051 passed on an 81-0 vote.