| April 4, 2013

Is Increased Spending Oklahoma’s Default Setting?

With credit to Oklahoma Congressman Tom Cole, who recently compared the current struggle over the federal budget to a five-act drama, it seems to me we’re in the midst of our own five-part drama right here at the state Capitol in Oklahoma City.

We’ll learn soon if Republicans will again grow government (disappointing tax-reduction activists in the bargain) or make meaningful spending reductions (perhaps even including a modest income-tax cut). This being reality and not fiction, there’s a chance they’ll do something in between.

Here’s the outline of this year’s Oklahoma budget drama, in five acts.

Act I: Governor Fallin’s budget and State of the State address.

Fallin laid out a lot of relatively modest spending hikes for health policy. She has stood against Medicaid expansion, so far, but detailed a big stack of anti-smoking, anti-obesity, and clean living initiatives that will … cost money if implemented.

The governor is under relentless pressure from the Oklahoma Hospital Association and others to reverse field and support unsustainable Medicaid expansion.

Some of my best friends are tax consumers, but the truth is that inside and outside of government they have a talented cadre of lobbyists.

Taxpayer advocates, citizens, and liberty-sensitive journalists have to be attentive at every stage of the game.

Even the State Chamber of Oklahoma is only conditionally for reductions in government’s size and cost, but good news came March 21.

Here is the Act I finale, or perhaps the start of Act II. Jennifer Monies, spokeswoman for Chamber president Fred Morgan, on March 21 told CapitolBeatOK that the Gov. Mary Fallin/Speaker T.W. Shannon income tax cut (from 5.25 percent to 5 percent) meets the necessary criteria to garner Chamber approval.

Act II might have started above, but it continues with positioning by other elected state executives to seek more spending. That’s been going on, mostly behind closed doors, for months.

Leader of the band was and is Superintendent of Public Instruction Janet Barresi. She wants a $37 million supplemental just to get through the current fiscal year, and a staggering $289 million increase for the next year.

Common education is not the only arm of state government with a voracious appetite. David Boren, president of the University of Oklahoma, is a master at both public and private fundraising for OU, and for higher education in general. In the esteemed former governor’s mind, there is not now and never will be enough money.

A few weeks ago, reporters teased Speaker of the House T.W. Shannon when he was an hour late for his session with the Capitol press corps. He did not respond when we asked him what he’d discussed with President Boren in the meeting that delayed his arrival, but of course everyone knew Boren wanted more money for higher education.

Time will tell if Shannon gives Boren his dream come true.

By and large, Republican officials holding statewide offices, including the governor, have sought budget increases. (A notable exception is Commissioner of Labor Mark Costello, who asked for a flat budget and is holding the line on fees.)

Act III began in late March. As members of the House and Senate contend with what the other chamber has done in the first half of the 2013 legislative session, budget-cutters face daunting realities.

Senate Republicans say they want tax cuts, but not at a level that causes any real impact on spending. In an early-session meeting for reporters with the majority caucus, I asked GOP leaders about consolidation of some public education functions. Sen. John Ford said he was for efficiencies but “no forced consolidation.”

Around the room, heads nodded at his sagacity, but the response means the education establishment has nothing to worry about when it comes to administration or efficiency.

House Republicans seem more serious about restraining spending—but the proof will be in the pudding.

And then, Act IV comes in early May. Governor Fallin, House Speaker T.W. Shannon, and Senate President Pro Tem Brian Bingman start the horse-trading and maneuvering (not necessarily slaughter) that have characterized legislative sessions throughout Oklahoma history—including those since Republicans took control of first one, then the other, chamber.

Odds are the permanent education bureaucracy, including local district superintendents making a quarter-million dollars a year in salary and benefits who have fought school choice and accountability reforms, will get much, but not all, of what they want. Corrections will get some boost; troopers and a few selected others will get pay hikes; the state will fulfill obligations under the DHS lawsuit settlement; and so forth.

I don’t usually quote myself, but I wrote last August:

“Proposals to cut spending come and go, but the permanent government and its allies in the government-dependent private sector go on forever. In an era where distrust of government is high, and voters long (theoretically) for restraints on taxes and spending, government spending at all levels has risen. It took an unwelcome Great Recession to moderate the pace of growth, but the direction thus far remains inexorable.

“This is so because while all sorts of people understand that government’s present and projected unfunded liabilities are unsustainable, there are powerful lobbies for virtually every specific government program.”

Act V starts the day Oklahoma government grows at least incrementally in late May, and perhaps as much as $200 million.

Dear reader: Linger on actual performance. As OCPA analysts are fond of saying: “Don’t read their lips. Read their budgets.”

It is 2013. In an era of low inflation, Oklahoma’s tax collections and state spending are at record highs.

Are conservatives being instructed by actions, rather than rhetoric, that state government spending will increase forevermore? Do Republicans value spending hikes over tax cuts?

What are they for, and what are they against? What does conservative mean in Oklahoma, in 2013?

Just thought I’d ask.

Patrick McGuigan (M.A. in history, Oklahoma State University) is editor of He is the editor of seven books on legal policy, and the author or co-author of three books, including Ninth Justice: The Fight for Bork.

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