Wanted: Oklahoma statesmen instead of politicians
By Scott Meacham
Copyright © 2016, The Oklahoma Publishing Company
Another legislative session has come and gone. A session that began with a great challenge in the form of a historic $1.3 billion budget “hole” and a bold vision from Gov. Mary Fallin for how to close that hole while moving the state forward on several fronts, has ended in a lot of disappointment.
Once again, the Legislature avoided bringing significant new revenues to bear and, instead, opted for the usual path of one-time bond issues and cash transfers, nominal tax credit reforms and eviscerating cuts to most of state government.
The Health Care Authority received an extra $20 million and the Tax Commission received an extra $1 million, while the Corporation Commission and the Department of Corrections were held flat on funding. Common education lost $58 million; higher education lost a whopping $153 million — that is 15.92 percent of last year’s appropriation. The job creators, Commerce and the Oklahoma Center for the Advancement of Science and Technology (OCAST), lost around $2 million each.
In the biggest shock of all, the Legislature gave its Legislative Service Bureau an extra $9 million, or an increase of 184 percent! When asked about this increase while devastating most of the rest of state government and higher education with unprecedented cuts, it was explained that this was needed so the Legislature could make payroll. Hmmm.
If you’re keeping score, OCAST, the state’s only real investment in science, high technology and building the economy of the future, has been cut over 44 percent since fiscal year 2008.
A budget reflects the priorities of the elected officials in the Legislature. People in the business community are starting to look at Oklahoma’s Legislature with the same disdain that they view Congress. As a former “insider” to the state budgeting process, I am constantly asked why the Legislature just can’t seem to get things right.
It’s a problem almost as old as the republic and certainly older than Oklahoma. James Freeman Clarke, the famous American theologian and author of the 1800s, assessed the failings of the politicians of his time when he famously stated, “A politician thinks of the next election. A statesman, of the next generation.”
Unfortunately, we have many more politicians than statesmen in the Legislature. To them, the next election is much more important than the future that we’re leaving to our children and grandchildren. The fear mongering of special interest groups and the desire to win perceived political points is more powerful than any pangs of conscience about making an opportunity to serve really count.
Seemingly, term limits would have helped this problem as legislators only have 12 years to serve. However, it seems things have become much worse instead of better. How else do you explain the failure to increase Oklahoma’s already relatively low tobacco taxes to improve health outcomes in Oklahoma and encourage kids to not start smoking? Or the failure to curtail wind energy tax credits that largely go to out-of-state companies in an industry that employs very few Oklahomans?
The solution: Something has to be done to get more statesmen to run for office in Oklahoma while encouraging the politicians to stay home.
Meacham is president and CEO of i2E Inc., a nonprofit corporation that mentors many of the state’s technology-based startup companies. He is a former state treasurer who served as chief budget negotiator for former Democratic Gov. Brad Henry.