Something fishy in the budget

July 31, 2012

At an OCPA speech in Tulsa and in other venues, Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels has said: "Never take a dollar from a free citizen through the coercion of taxation without a very legitimate purpose. We have a solemn duty to spend that dollar as carefully as possible because, when we took it, we diminished that person's freedom."

Even though Oklahoma government spending was already at an all-time high, the political leaders who crafted the FY-2013 budget decided to spend even more money. But is there "a very legitimate purpose" behind all this spending? Is all this money — more than $500 per second — being spent "as carefully as possible"?

The Oklahoma Tourism and Recreation Department (OTRD) is an example of an agency working hard to use taxpayer dollars wisely. Whether it has been the wise release of state parks with intensely local functions, or leveraging OTRD products such as Oklahoma Today magazine to minimize use of taxpayer funds, the OTRD has been a recent leader for other state agencies. The OTRD is even reducing the amount of taxpayer funds used for losses on state golf courses.

Given the exemplary action of the OTRD, it is disappointing that the broken culture of the state budget process has been forced upon the OTRD.

According to the recently enacted budget bill, the OTRD is to receive taxpayer general revenue funds for the upcoming fiscal year. The bill provides the following:

SECTION 115. There is hereby appropriated to the Oklahoma Tourism and Recreation Department from any monies not otherwise appropriated from the General Revenue Fund of the State Treasury for the fiscal year ending June 30, 2013, the sum of Twenty-one Million Eight Hundred Three Thousand Three Dollars ($21,803,003.00) or so much thereof as may be necessary to perform the duties imposed upon the Oklahoma Tourism and Recreation Department by law.

The OTRD is responsible for operating and maintaining state parks, promoting tourism and other duties. Given the responsibilities of the OTRD, citizens and taxpayers will no doubt be disheartened to learn that the OTRD has been instructed by individual lawmakers to “pass-through” some of its funds to other entities. This instruction was not transparently provided for in the agency’s budget bill.

According to a letter that was sent to the OTRD by lawmakers, the OTRD is to allocate $40,000 to the “Jenks Aquarium” for FY-2013. Including allocated amounts for FY-2012 & FY-2013, the Jenks Aquarium has been paid a total of about $263,000 by the OTRD since FY-2009. One must wonder how many state lawmakers realize that a vote for the state budget meant a vote for the non-transparent earmark for the Jenks Aquarium.

The Jenks Aquarium is no doubt a useful and educational attraction. But one must wonder why (especially in a non-transparent manner) the Jenks Aquarium is worthy of state taxpayer funds when many entities such as the Tulsa Zoo, Oklahoma City Zoo and National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum operate without state taxpayer funds.

OCPA's perspective is that coerced general state taxpayer funding for an aquarium is outside the core purposes of government. Further, in our meetings with citizens across the state about the spending priorities of the state and the core functions of government, state taxpayer funding for aquariums has not been mentioned as permissible or a priority.

This non-transparent earmark is yet another example from the state’s deeply flawed budget that resulted from a process many lawmakers have said is shameful, outdated and in need of reform. We applaud those lawmakers who are working to reform the budget process and we hope their colleagues will also remember their “solemn duty” and end everything “fishy” (literally and figuratively) about the state budget and how it is derived.