Small: Getting Real About Government Spending

By Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs President Jonathan Small

We heard it over and over again from the first day of the 2017 legislative session until its closing moments on May 26: “Oklahoma doesn’t have enough money! We have to increase revenue or starve!”

As Oklahoma’s own Paul Harvey used to say, here is the rest of the story.

Oklahoma state government is now on track to spend more money next year – more than $17.9 billion – than at any time in state history. The simple truth is that we don’t have a revenue problem; we have a spending problem and a transparency problem. Unfortunately, the recent legislative session did nearly nothing to address these challenges.

But wait, how can spending be going up after legislators rejected all of the biggest tax hike proposals? They refused numerous attempts at backdoor personal income tax increases. Requests for a massive sales tax expansion were never taken seriously by lawmakers, to their credit.

All this is possible because the Legislature’s appropriations are just a part of what state government spends every year. Some agencies have their own special revolving funds that pay out off-the-top money without legislative action – so much for the power of the purse. Many agencies get federal funds, and some have special streams of local tax dollars, none of which are included in “appropriations.”

Government-run higher education is perhaps the best example of opaque budgeting and then pleading poverty. The best evidence of this is the feast-and-famine nature of state universities and colleges: the biggest universities build billions’ worth of buildings, the smaller colleges starve, and tuition hikes hammer middle- and lower-income families.

It’s also an area rife with duplication: CareerTech, community colleges, and four-year colleges overlap needlessly and wastefully at the expense of taxpayers and tuition payers. And just how many boards of regents and offices of registrars does a state really need?

The trend in recent years is that even when the Legislature appropriates less money to higher education, total spending still goes up. This will most likely happen once again in the coming year, and not just in higher education but across much of state government.

The silly Space Industry Development Authority (seen any rockets launched lately?) is churning out funds at a record pace, $3.5 million this year. The Oklahoma Health Care Authority, which spent the session issuing dire warnings that nursing homes would all close without vast expansion of Medicaid, hurling grandma out into the snow, has steadily added personnel as its total dollar outlays have reached $5.6 billion.

And our public schools, the poster child for state government poverty claims, have continued a 23-year trend of boosting non-teaching administrative overhead at seven times the rate of enrollment increase – enough to have given every teacher in Oklahoma a $6,000 raise.

The Department of Environmental Quality gets just seven percent of its funding from legislative appropriations. It has seen a decline in state appropriations since 2014, but overall its spending this year is almost $15 million more.

So state government is spending more than ever before while claiming that the piggy bank is empty and demanding more coin from the taxpayers. What we rarely heard this year was any talk about reforming the structure of government to eliminate waste and duplication, to consolidate widely dispersed agencies, or to simply demand that agencies justify their spending from the ground up.

Oklahoma taxpayers look forward to better in 2018.

Jonathan Small serves as president of the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs (

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