By Rep. RICK WEST
Folks, I’m at a loss. And what do I do when I’m at a loss? I pray. Oklahoma is at a crossroads. Lawmakers are in the middle of great uncertainty, and the fogginess trickles down to our constituents.
Should legislators seek to streamline government and cut waste, or should we raise taxes once again thinking it will be the last time we have to do so? I’m afraid if we take the latter option, we’ll be facing the same question a few years down the line.
I have been asking God to provide clarity in the midst of this crossroads, and I’m asking you to please do the same.
As I imagine you’ve all heard by now, Secretary of Finance Preston Doerflinger announced last week that three healthcare agencies would receive reduced allocations immediately. The Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services issued a press release saying its $75 million cut equates to 23 percent of its budget. The Oklahoma Health Care Authority will have to eliminate $70 million from its spending, and the Department of Human Services is going to lost $69 million. These are devastating cuts.
Why are we doing this? Why are we slashing agencies that have said they can continue operations at current levels for months while we fix the shortfall? Why are we trying to increase taxes to the tune of $500 million when we only have a $215 million hole?
We have $83 million in carryover funds from last fiscal year, and we have millions of dollars available in the state’s Rainy Day Fund as well. Why aren’t we tapping into those funds to lessen the blow?
I don’t have an answer. Oklahoma’s Tobacco Settlement Endowment Trust (TSET) has a balance of more than $1.1 billion. That money is dedicated for anti-smoking efforts and healthcare purposes. But TSET has doled out more than $650,000 promoting smoke-free Oklahoma bars and clubs. That money could have been spent protecting vulnerable Oklahomans, providing mental health care for our children and paying for nursing home beds.
All of that is meant to say this – look, our state is not as broke as we claim to be. There is money out there. The trouble is, the state constitution fiercely protects TSET. I support using those funds for health care purposes, but is that really what happened with the $650,000 spent on nightclubs? I don’t think so. In the Oklahoman last week, the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs suggested reforming the billion-dollar fund. I think that’s a great place to start, but it’s going to take some time.
There are steps that lawmakers could take now – things that could have been done months ago. We could have scaled back state agency spending on “swag” like stress balls, mouse pads and pens. We could have reined in our purchasing agreements agencies have to abide by. We could have line-itemed spending. But we never did. I am disappointed, but I still hold out hope that conservative principles will triumph in the end. It’s what is best for Oklahoma.
Please continue to pray for lawmakers and our state as we continue budget negotiations. As you know, I am around if you need me. You can reach me at [email protected] or by calling 405-557-7413. Thank you, and God bless.
Get our free daily email updates. Click HERE to sign up.
Spread the word about your business or service by sponsoring OTHER STORIES or another section of heavenerledger.com Call (918) 649-4712 for more information.
To submit a story or information, or to make a correction please send an email to [email protected]
Copyright 2017 Heavener Ledger. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.