http://www.cherokeephoenix.orgOklahoma Watch is a nonprofit corporation whose mission is to produce in-depth and investigative journalism on public-policy and quality-of-life issues facing the state. COURTESY
Oklahoma Watch is a nonprofit corporation whose mission is to produce in-depth and investigative journalism on public-policy and quality-of-life issues facing the state. COURTESY

Largest state budget falls short of restoring years of cuts

Oklahoma Watch
05/08/2018 04:30 PM
OKLAHOMA CITY – Lawmakers have passed the largest state budget in Oklahoma history. But that doesn’t mean state agencies have recovered from years of cost-cutting.

The House of Representatives voted 63-31 April 27 to approve the $7.5 billion appropriations bill that will be $724 million – or 10.9 percent – more than the state’s current fiscal year budget.

The bulk of the new funds will be used to boost salaries for teachers, school support staff and state employees. And millions of additional dollars will go into the school funding formula and targeted initiatives for criminal justice, social services and other programs.

GOP legislative leaders celebrated the passage of the measure that now will go to Gov. Mary Fallin for her consideration. They acknowledged it wasn’t perfect but hailed it as an achievement – the first time in years that the state budget wasn’t cut.

But an Oklahoma Watch analysis shows the budget will ultimately do little to reverse years of reductions to education, health care, public safety and other state agencies.

About two-thirds of the 63 agencies getting a funding boost this year are receiving extra money strictly to fund employee pay raises as a result of legislation that passed this year.

More than half of the state’s larger departments will still receive less this year than they did in 2009 – the last year before revenues began to drop as a result of a nationwide recession followed by a downturn in the oil industry. Lawmakers largely responded by cutting budget and using one-time savings.

The difference between the state agencies’ 2009 and 2019 budgets is even more striking when the numbers are adjusted for inflation.

Just to keep up with the inflation rate, the Legislature would have needed to pass an $8.1 billion budget – nearly half a billion dollars more than what was approved for the 2019 budget.

Senate Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Kim David, R-Wagoner, called the 2019 budget a “fantastic beginning” that is “just the first step” toward pouring more money into education, health and other key services.

Others cautioned against applauding the 2019 budget, saying the proposal falls far short of undoing the damage from years of reduced or stagnant budgets.

“After a decade of failed tax cuts led to multiple revenue failures and devastating budget cuts, there is still much work to be done to repair the damage,” said Minority Leader Sen. John Sparks, D-Norman. “Instead of celebrating that the proposed budget avoids agency cuts, we should take the time to negotiate revenue measures that will allow us to really invest in education, health care, core services and infrastructure.”

Who’s Getting What

Public schools are among the biggest winners in this year’s budget, with the Department of Education receiving an increase of $480 million, or nearly 20 percent, over the current $2.4 billion budget, which was cut halfway through the fiscal year.

Common-education increases include $365 million for the teacher raise package, $52 million for support staff raises, $33 million for textbooks and $17 million to be added to the funding formula.
Budget increases for other state agencies include:

• $24.6 million for the Department of Human Services for foster care, elder care and developmental disability services, including beginning to address the years-long waiting list for such services.

• $11 million for criminal justice reforms.

• $2 million to the Legislative Service Bureau for agency performance audits.

• $4.8 million for the Department of Corrections to implement an electronic offender-management system.

• $4 million to the Office of Emergency Management for disaster relief.

• $400,000 to the Department of Agriculture for rural firefighters.

Much of the rest of the new money goes toward state employee pay raises totaling $54 million that the Legislature approved. That money, spread out among agencies’ budgets, accounts for all or most of the funding increases most agencies will see.

That leaves little or no money to restore the years of budget cuts lawmakers have approved due to the numerous budget shortfalls or mid-year revenue failures seen over the past decade.

The State Regents for Higher Education, for example, received a $7.8 million increase compared to their current funding. This represents only a 1 percent increase over the past year and barely makes a dent in more than quarter-billion dollars cut over the decade.

Chancellor Glen D. Johnson said the regents are thankful to Fallin and the Legislature for the increase, as well as an extra $7.5 million that will go toward concurrent enrollment. But he said in a statement Thursday that he will continue to stress the importance of higher education funding.
“Data clearly show that states with a high percentage of college degree holders have higher per capita incomes and stronger economies,” he said. “We will continue to make the case that there is no better investment to ensure a brighter future for Oklahoma than the investment our policy leaders can make in higher education.”

Other agencies that have seen a drop in state funding since 2009 include:

• Department of Transportation (decrease of $41.8 million, or 20.1 percent).

• Office of Juvenile Affairs (decrease of $19.5 million, or 17.3 percent)

• Department of Health (decrease of $20 million, or 26.9 percent)

• Department of Veterans Affairs (decrease of $7.9 million, or 19.7 percent)

• Department of Environmental Quality (decrease of $3.2 million, or 33.2 percent)

• District Attorneys Council (decrease of $6.7 million, or 15.8 percent)

Joe Dorman, a former Democratic state lawmaker, 2014 gubernatorial candidate and current head of the nonprofit Oklahoma Institute for Child Advocacy, said it is a relief that many of the agencies his group works with won’t be cut again. But in light of the decades of budget cuts, this budget shouldn’t be celebrated, he said.

“I’m happy we’re seeing a little boost, but we can’t rest on our laurels,” he said. “After seeing multiple years of financial crises, it is going to be some time before we get a lot of these agencies to be fully funded so they can perform their mission.”

Oklahoma’s growing population is also putting pressure on state coffers.

Census Bureau estimates show Oklahoma has gained about 213,000 people over the past decade. This often translates into more duties for many of the state’s safety-net programs.

“Child welfare services is a perfect example,” Dorman said. “It’s great that our state employees are getting a boost in their salary, but we also need money to hire more employees as their caseloads go up.”

Money Only Goes So Far

When adjusted for inflation, only four of the state’s larger agencies will be getting a higher appropriation than they did in 2009.

Funding needs persist even for these departments.

The Education Department’s proposed budget of $2.9 billion is $40 million over 2009’s inflation-adjusted amount.

But as the two-week teacher walkout showed, many educators don’t think that is enough. This is partly because since 2009, student enrollment statewide has increased by about 40,000.

Meanwhile, the Department of Human Services, Oklahoma Health Care Authority and the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services have also seen their budgets increase during this period even when adjusted for inflation.

But these three agencies have been hit with a mixture of increased demand, federal funding constraints and mandated costs, such as the Health Care Authority’s having to assume a greater portion of the cost to train doctors.

The agencies also have experienced cuts in recent years.

The new budget for the mental health department still remains below its peak funding level despite getting a nearly $12 million funding bump this year.

“This doesn’t even get us back to your 2016 funding levels,” said Wendi Fralick, chief administrative officer with the Mental Health Association Oklahoma. “And this is not enough because we weren’t even meeting our needs with that funding.”

Fralick acknowledged that avoiding another round of budget cuts was good news because she doesn’t think the system could “manage” with fewer funds. But, she said, she hopes lawmakers won’t be content to simply avoid additional cuts in future budgets.

“I don’t want this to be just seen as a Band-Aid to keep advocates pacified,” she said. “We want them to come back with more funding.”


07/17/2018 12:00 PM
ADA – For 70 years, campers representing more than 50 Indigenous tribal nations from across North America gather for Indian Falls Creek Baptist Assembly in Ada. This family camp provides Bible classes, training, a health fair, recreation, fellowship and worship services for all ages. The opportunity to attend with the entire family and people of all ages makes IFC an annual event for many churches. Some campers have attended IFC since childhood and now make it an annual tradition for their children and grandchildren. Prayer Walk Warriors start the morning early and join the daily sunrise service. Later in the week walkers and runners participate in the annual 5k Hot and Sweaty Run. More than 500 preschoolers and children attend classes and Vacation Bible School each day and campers 6 to 11 years old attend Children’s Church twice daily. Class sessions for youth, young adults and adults are also offered and vary in topics. A nursery is provided during morning youth and young adult services and evening family services. IFC officials said they want to meet the needs seen throughout Native American and First Nations communities by providing training that helps campers engage others in their communities. Suicide prevention, literacy training and health classes supplement the Biblical and leadership development training offered to campers. Other opportunities include blood donations and a bone marrow registry at the health fair. The Silver Fox Fellowship provides a time for senior campers to relax and meet in a cool place, if they are not watching or participating in recreational activities. Highlights during recreation are the watermelon eating contest, youth art contest, Bible drills, children’s Olympics, stickball games and the golden frybread/steaming meatpie contest. Each day, different Indian Nations are invited to sing traditional hymns in their tribal languages during the worship services. The 71st Indian Falls Creek meeting is July 29 through Aug. 2. For more information, visit <a href="" target="_blank"></a>.
07/17/2018 10:30 AM
TAHLEQUAH – The United Keetoowah Band will distribute clothing vouchers and gift cards for exclusive UKB students beginning at 10:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. on July 21 in the Education Building at 4547 S. Whitmore Lane. Students ages 4-12 will receive $100 vouchers and backpacks, while students ages 13-18 will receive $100 gift cards. Students must present their tribal ID card and proof of enrollment or last semester’s report card to receive funds, which can be used at Walmart to purchase items including clothing, shoes and school supplies. For students who cannot attend, vouchers and gift cards can be obtained by visiting the UKB offices beginning on July 23. Students ages 4-12 will need to visit the Henry Lee Doublehead Child Development Center at 18771 W. Keetoowah Circle. Students ages 13-18 will need to visit the Community Services building at 18263 W. Keetoowah Circle. District representatives can also obtain cards for students if needed. Parents and guardians can pass along the required verification items and district representatives will sign before returning all items to them. Disbursement of funds is also not dependent upon income guidelines. “We don’t income guideline it because it’s a one-time thing. It’s not a monthly program. We don’t do income guidelines, and the only goal of that is to help our children,” UKB Tribal Secretary Joyce Hawk said. The event coincides with the Keetoowah Strong event that will take place at 8 a.m. on July 21. Free physicals and haircuts will also be available for children.
Multimedia Producer – @cp_rgraham
07/17/2018 08:30 AM
TAHLEQUAH – Cherokee Nation citizen and a foreman for the Manhattan Construction Group, Kenny Foreman, led a group of CN leaders on a tour of the new Cherokee Casino Tahlequah construction job site on July 12 inside the Cherokee Springs Plaza. “The projects on track right now,” Foreman said. “We’re looking to be finished up and opened up in the spring of 2019. We’re at about 92,000 square feet and got a 1,000-seat convention center, which will be good for all of Tahlequah, not just the Cherokee Nation.” He said 70 percent of the construction money is going to Tribal Employment Rights Office vendors, who are certified to be Native American-owned and approved by the Tribal Council to do business with the tribe. Secretary of State Chuck Hoskin Jr., who was part of the tour group, along with Chief of Staff Chuck Hoskin and Tribal Councilor Rex Jordan, said he was pleased at the progress and happy about the number of Cherokees working at the job site. In a June report, there were 57 percent TERO-certified personnel working at the job site. “The new casino, which will have 525 games, a restaurant, a grab-and-go café, a live entertainment venue and a full service bar, will be over three times larger than the existing Cherokee Casino Tahlequah. That means 50 new jobs added to the 175 existing jobs for a total of 225. It’s a game changer for the Cherokee capital,” Hoskin said. Also included in the plans are 33,000 square feet of convention and meeting space, according to a previous Cherokee Phoenix story. The CN broke ground on March 26 on the new casino, which is expected to bring more entertainment, dining and convention options to the area. “We’ve taken one of the largest tracts in Tahlequah’s main corridor and are using it to grow the economy and create jobs,” Cherokee Nation Businesses CEO Shawn Slaton said. “We’ve attracted new restaurants and businesses and are now bringing first-class entertainment options to Cherokee Springs Plaza. We know this casino and economic development endeavor will have a lasting impact on the Cherokee Nation and the entire region.” The current casino is at 16489 Highway 62 and will be donated to the CN’s Cherokee Immersion Charter School to help expand language programs for the tribe’s youth. The CN broke ground on Cherokee Springs Plaza in 2014. The 154-acre retail, dining and entertainment development is next to Cherokee Springs Golf Course, the tribe’s 18-hole golf course. The plaza has since become home to a new auto dealership, the area’s first Taco Bueno, a Buffalo Wild Wings and a second Sonic Drive-In location. “We believe in making sound investments that have a lasting impact on the Cherokee Nation and the Cherokee people,” Principal Chief Bill John Baker said. “This new property will be a regional attraction for tourism and economic development and is a complement to the work happening at Cherokee Springs Plaza and all over the Tahlequah area.”
Multimedia Producer – @cp_rgraham
07/16/2018 12:00 PM
TAHLEQUAH - The Cherokee Nation’s Election commission held a special meeting on July 10 in the Cherokee Nation Election Commission building. Commissioners revised various segments of the EC bylaws, rules and regulations. The commission also discussed actions to be taken on the recent water damage to its headquarters. The commission then voted to allow EC Chairwoman Shawna Calico to vote on all motions. Before this decision, Calico only voted when votes ended in ties. Later Commissioner Carolyn Allen motioned for the commission to go into executive session after attorney Harvey Chaffin told the five commissioners he saw no need for executive session. Once the commission came out of the private discussion, Calico announced no action was taken during the executive session. The Cherokee Phoenix covered the event and produced the following video of the entire meeting, not including the executive session.
07/15/2018 02:00 PM
TULSA, Oklahoma (AP) — Activists in Oklahoma are looking to entrench the right to use marijuana in the state's constitution by promoting a pair of ballot measures. The Tulsa World reports that the first state question would classify marijuana as an "herbal drug" and amend the Oklahoma Constitution. The other initiative says a person 21 years or older can possess or consume up to two ounces of marijuana for personal use. Both were filed in April. Voters in Oklahoma backed the medicinal use of the drug last month. Yet, Isaac Caviness with Green the Vote says the two state questions being promoted are an "insurance policy" to make sure State Question 788 is not over regulated.
07/15/2018 08:00 AM
TULSA, Okla. (AP) — Oklahoma's 4.0 earthquakes are up significantly this year, but the overall rate of earthquakes is declining. Oklahoma has had six quakes of at least magnitude 4.0 halfway through this year, which is one more than all of last year. But the overall rate of earthquakes has declined, with 96 quakes of magnitude 3.0 or greater through June 30, compared with 144 at this point last year and 302 by the end of 2017, the Tulsa World reported. A magnitude 4.6 in April near Perry was the 12th largest in state history. Scientists are largely seeing earthquakes on unmapped faults that were activated in 2014 by wastewater injection, said state seismologist Jake Walter. Scientists are researching specific mechanisms by which the state's ongoing seismicity is triggered, he said. Wastewater can trigger the initial earthquakes, but quakes themselves can lead to more quakes. "So in some ways the wastewater injection has created a new paradigm that defies how we would categorize main shocks and aftershocks if this were a fault that had slipped in a more natural setting," he said. Walter said that Oklahoma's seismic risk appears to be similar to the latest hazard forecast put out by the U.S. Geological Survey in March. The agency calculated Oklahoma's short-term hazard levels to be similar to active regions in California. The chance of earthquake damage in high-hazard areas of Oklahoma this year ranges from 1 percent to 14 percent, "much higher" than most parts of the U.S.