BY DAVID AVERILL Editor, Editorial Pages
Sunday, June 19, 2011
6/19/11 at 3:24 AM
Throughout the recent legislative session, House and Senate leaders and Gov. Mary Fallin constantly repeated their ostensible intention to "protect" education and other core state services in the budget-making process.
As the session neared its end last month and they crafted a $6.5 billion state budget for fiscal 2012 - $218 million less than 2011 - the leaders celebrated and proclaimed that they had accomplished just that.
But the fact is, not only does the 2012 budget not protect public education, it hammers it.
While the overall budget was cut 3.2 percent, common education sustained a reduction of 4 percent, or $97.4 million; career tech, 6 percent, or $8.2 million, and higher education, 6 percent, or $58.2 million.
Another way to put it is this: Public education accounted for $167.4 million of the total $218 million in budget cuts. Still another way is this: Public schools, colleges and universities, which together account for 52 percent of all state appropriations, sustained three-fourths of the cuts.
Slash and burn
No matter how you state the numbers, this is not a budget that "protects" public education.
Tulsa Public Schools Superintendent Keith Ballard said that the cuts to common education would mean another $1.3 million reduction on top of the $6.3 million lost over the past two years - cuts that already forced the district to jettison teachers and close neighborhood schools.
The latest budget reductions (along with expiration of federal stimulus funds) are a big part of the reason why the Tulsa district last week was forced to cut 65 special education employee positions and slash student counseling services provided by mental health agencies.
"The Legislature is determined to have smaller government," Ballard said. "This is what smaller government looks like."
The sad fact is that the cuts didn't have to be this bad. Yes, Oklahoma experienced severe revenue declines over three years because of the nation's Great Recession. But while revenues were dropping as the economy tanked, and for a few years previous to that, legislators were busily and steadily chopping the state income tax top rate, which once stood at 7 percent, to 5.25 percent.
Cutting the income rate, along with raising the standard deduction, costs the state an estimated $600 million a year.
Taxes and wealth
Lawmakers could have eased this year's education reductions by eliminating some tax credits and incentives or by delaying the effective date of the latest income tax top rate reduction.
Or, God forbid, they could have raised taxes. Oklahoma voters in March, 1992 approved State Question 640, which essentially makes it impossible to increase taxes without a vote of the people.
But even a couple of years before that, legislatures were terrified by the very idea of raising taxes. So there has not been a general state tax increase in more than 20 years. Any increase in state taxes, such as the cigarette tax hike, was limited and approved by voters.
The Legislature's recent tax-cutting efforts, taken together with the drastic steps that schools and other state agencies are taking to deal with them, paint a troubling picture.
Education cuts are the largest, but certainly not the only, part of a transfer of wealth in Oklahoma from middle and lower income families to the wealthiest taxpayers.
Consider just a few of the steps that state agencies are taking to deal with budget cuts: School districts across the state are laying off teachers, cutting programs, even shortening their school year; colleges are considering tuition increases; the Department of Tourism and Recreation is closing seven state parks; the Department of Human Services is cutting child-care subsidies for low-income families and trimming other services. The list goes on and on.
The beneficiaries of public education, student mental health counseling, the state park system, child-care reimbursement and other disappearing state services are by and large middle and lower income families. Those families are now faced with paying for the services themselves, or going without - or in the case of education, accepting less.
Meanwhile, state income rate reductions that helped make these budget cuts necessary are mostly enjoyed by the wealthiest Oklahomans - the top 5 percent (those making 176,000 a year and up) will take home 43 percent of the tax cut; the top 20 percent will realize 73 percent of it.
I'm not suggesting that Oklahoma's political leadership is deliberately waging war on the middle and lower economic classes. (The leadership did strive this past session to protect some other services - mental health, substance abuse and health care, for example.)
I'll give them the benefit of the doubt and just say that they probably haven't thought about it in those terms.
David Averill, 918-581-8333
Gov. Mary Fallin signed several House bills affecting public schools in her first year in office. JOHN CLANTON/The Oklahoman file