By Scott Meacham
Copyright © 2017, The Oklahoma Publishing Company
Last week, against the backdrop of yet another shortage in spendable revenue for Oklahoma’s legislature for the FY 2018 budget year, Gov. Mary Fallin set forth a bold and brave vision for Oklahoma.
It wasn’t that she announced some new program or startling initiative trumpeting hundreds of new jobs. No. Gov. Fallin stood tall and proposed a $7.9 billion fiscal year 2018 budget that addressed critical spending needs of the state while proposing a means to pay for her budget without utilizing one-time funds or recommending yet another year of across-the-board spending cuts to fill the gap.
A year ago, I wrote a column similar to this one, supporting this governor as she proposed a plan to balance the state budget while facing a record-sized $1.3 billion shortfall. At the time, I applauded her balanced, practical approach to taking on a severe budget shortfall that had to be addressed.
The Legislature, instead, chose to diminish Oklahoma’s future by imposing another round of devastatingly painful cuts in areas that significantly impact Oklahoma’s ability to innovate short- and long-term. Those cuts included education and the Oklahoma Center for the Advancement of Science & Technology (OCAST), the only agency in Oklahoma with the sole focus of technology, its development, transfer and commercialization.
Governors are elected to lead. Weak governors hide behind the legislature when things get tough. Strong governors attempt to lead their state by proposing bold and sometimes unpopular initiatives to right the state’s ship. That is exactly what our governor did.
She has defined a path and is taking the lead in redirecting Oklahoma in a direction of sustained growth and prosperity with a proposed budget that bends toward desperately needed new recurring revenue to finally solve the structural budget issues that have plagued our state since well before the downturn in energy prices. With that revenue, Gov. Fallin is targeting much needed budget increases for eight agencies, with the largest increases ($125 million) going to the Department of Education and teacher pay.
Building a strong pipeline of educated human capital is vital to Oklahoma’s future. It’s not only that we need to fund the education of our young people. It’s not just something that we have to do; it’s something we should want to do regardless of political party. We need to champion education. And we need to demand that our elected representatives champion it, too. This proposed budget can be a rallying point and provides cover to members of the Legislature who may otherwise lack the boldness to do what everyone knows needs to be done.
Our governor has exercised the first important step of statesmanship — stepping up to call on the citizens of this state to invest in their state. Now it’s up to our Legislature to demonstrate the same level of statesmanship.
No doubt, it would be easier to pass another budget with across-the-board cuts and stopgap funding measures. But no state can budget-cut its way to successful growth. States — just like businesses — must invest to grow.
Now that the governor has laid out her plan to move the state forward, let’s hope that the men and women we have elected to the Legislature match her courage and don’t just kick the ball down the road.
Scott Meacham is president and CEO of i2E Inc., a nonprofit corporation that mentors many of the state’s technology-based startup companies. i2E receives state support from the Oklahoma Center for the Advancement of Science and Technology and is an integral part of Oklahoma’s Innovation Model. Contact Meacham at i2E_Comments@i2E.org.