State Legislature Make Cuts For Agencies, Spare Themselves
OKLAHOMA CITY - There was little fanfare last month when Gov. Mary Fallin put her signature on the fiscal year 2016 budget.
The $7.1 billion spending plan that started July 1 contained little to cheer about, as the vast majority of state agencies will have to swallow steep cuts.
But select agencies were spared the budget ax, and at least a couple of those choices have raised eyebrows and concern that budget writers were playing favorites.
"Oh no, we wouldn't want to be fair across the board," said Rep. Richard Morrissette, a Democrat who represents south Oklahoma City and is a frequent critic of the Legislature's GOP leadership.
Morrissette fully expected widespread spending cuts, in light of the $611 million shortfall the state was facing. What he didn't expect, he said, was that those crafting the budget would protect themselves.
"How about we, the Legislature? They didn't take a decrease in their own budgets," Morrissette said. "I mean, how hypocritical is that?"
According to budget documents, of the 71 state agencies, 49 had their appropriations reduced, nine got increases, while 13 were held flat. Those held harmless included the state Senate, at $12.4 million, and the state House of Representatives, at $16.7 million.
Actually, a closer analysis of the House budget reveals that a $1 million supplemental appropriation lawmakers approved for themselves in FY 2015 was annualized. In other words, the state house's $16.7 million allocation for FY 2016 is a six percent increase of last year.
"It's really disturbing to see how they're playing games with it," State Auditor and Inspector Gary Jones said.
Jones, a Republican, has criticized the current budget-writing process for lack of consistency and sound accounting methodology. The House's hidden increase is one example of that, he says, and his own department's budget is another.
Officially, the state auditor's office was appropriated $4.12 million, a reduction of 7.25 percent from FY 2015's $4.44 million. In press releases sent out by legislative leaders and the Governor's office, it was stated that no agency was cut more than 7.25 percent.
But Jones said the actual appropriation of new dollars to his agency was $3.35 million -- 18.5 percent less than last year. He says those who wrote the budget disguised that fact by including in their "appropriated funds" $500,000 from the auditor's revolving fund. Jones said that is money they've always had access to and use to handle unexpected expenses.
"If you're gonna cut our agency by 18.5 percent, man up and say it. Don't play games with it and say, 'Well, we only cut them by 7.25.' No, you didn't. You cut us by 18.5," Jones said.
The process of putting the budget together begins many months before it get into the hands of lawmakers.
Agency heads submit budget requests based on early revenue projections; the Governor submits a budget blueprint at the start of the legislative session, based on more refined revenue estimates; and then, once the State Board of Equalization certifies a final revenue estimate in February, the respective appropriations chairs take over: Rep. Earl Sears from the House and Sen. Clark Jolley from the Senate.
Multiple sources say the FY 2016 budget was predominantly Jolley's work.
"It was a very, very tough budget to craft," Jolley said in a recent interview in his office.
This was the Edmond senator's fourth budget and he said he's used to the criticism.
"I don't know of one budget we've ever passed where anybody said, 'Man, that's a great budget!' unless they were getting more money," Jolley said.
Jolley said he also expected to take heat for holding the House and Senate budgets flat, but just didn't feel they could afford to cut anymore.
"If we were gonna take a cut, it would have had to be a modest one because we have cut spending -- radically -- for the Senate and for the House in the last several years," he said.
Compared to pre-recession budgets, House and Senate appropriations are down. But most agencies' budgets are down, and many of them more significantly than in the House and Senate.
The Oklahoma Policy Institute's David Blatt said Jolley and his colleagues seemed to ignore that.
"All across state government, sacrifices are being made, and I think it was a really bad sign to send to the people of Oklahoma that the Legislature decided one of the very agencies not to be cut was their own," Blatt said.
Still, Blatt and other state capitol watchers say the biggest problem with this budget is its reliance on one-time funding sources. They say it potentially sets the state up for a more intractable budget situation next year.