Staff Reports | December 19, 2016
Lawmakers Respond to Regents’ Budget Request
(From left to right: Sen. Nathan Dahm, R-Tulsa; State Auditor and Inspector Gary Jones; Rep. David Brumbaugh, R-Tulsa)
On December 1, the Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education voted to seek $957.9 million for fiscal year 2018—an increase of 18.3 percent over the current year’s budget.
Chancellor Glen Johnson said the request reflected “a minimum need” and was “very lean.”
State Sen. Nathan Dahm (R-Tulsa) responded to a CIJ request for comment on the regents’ request.
“Two years ago the Senate had hearings during which we brought in the agencies making up the largest portions of the budget, including higher education,” said Dahm, a Majority Whip and a member of both the Appropriations and Finance Committees. “During the appropriations committee hearing focusing on higher ed, their slide show stated that a 6.9 percent increase would cause them to have to eliminate 305 courses which they claimed would be unsustainable.
“When I asked how many courses are offered, I discovered that higher ed offers over 35,000 courses; yet somehow they make the claim that eliminating 305 of them would be catastrophic. To claim that among 35,000 courses there is less than a tenth of a percent that could be reduced shows the perception with which higher ed operates.
“Surely in those 35,000 courses there is duplication, redundancy, and inefficiencies that could be addressed—to say nothing of some of the course offerings that could be outright eliminated,” he said.
Sen. Dahm also questioned the spending habits of Oklahoma’s higher education system and insisted that the system submit itself to a fully transparent review for the public’s inspection.
“When we consider the fact that the chancellor of higher education receives a larger salary than the Governor of Oklahoma by over two times and a salary comparable to the President of the United States, we can easily see that higher ed has not focused their money on the benefit of the students or taxpayers.
“Until they (the Oklahoma higher education system) fully open their books for us to see all their revenue streams and how they are spending that money, I will not support any increase to them and will instead push for a moratorium on tuition increases.”
Some political and policy leaders at the state Capitol have suggested that one way for the books and ledgers of higher education to be reviewed is for a full audit of the system to be performed. CIJ asked Oklahoma State Auditor and Inspector Gary Jones for his thoughts on the regents’ funding request.
“It appears the legislature cut higher education more than expected last year as a backlash because of (State Question) 779 and the possibility that higher education would be getting additional funds from that,” he said.
“I agree that many legislators are trying to find funding for teachers raises. I think that’s what voters want them to do. It’s either cut tax credits, find more revenue, or cut other agencies even more, he said. “The projected shortfall does make that a more difficult task.”
State Rep. David Brumbaugh (R-Tulsa) also responded to a request for comment.
“This $150 million additional request from the Board of Regents will be hard for the state to provide with the fiscal shortfall we are facing again this year,” said Brumbaugh, chairman of the House Majority Caucus and a member of the General Government Appropriations and Budget Subcommittee.
“Education both common and higher is still over half of Oklahoma's appropriated budget. The Legislature really wants to help ... but it’s the same old story ... Where is the money supposed to come from? We are facing anywhere between an 800 million to a billion dollar shortfall.
“Universities have the opportunity to raise money for endowments, others receive tremendous royalties from sports, and many more have numerous assets that are substantial. While the state doesn't have that luxury and can only operate with the tax revenue it receives from the certified funds it has.
“It's time for some folks to realize that Oklahomans spoke loud and clear about the sales tax increase (SQ 779) at the ballot box. To a person Oklahomans have been saying for some time now that they are unwilling to throw any more money at education without structural reforms to the system.
“I think if we can start there we can weather this economic crisis and at the same time also accomplish some long-needed fiscal operating improvements and efficiencies to our public schools, colleges and universities, which should be what everyone wants.”
State Rep. Scott Inman (D-Del City), the Democratic Minority Leader, did not respond to a request for comment.