It was deja-vous. A few days ago, the State Purchasing Director attempted to walk the Government Modernization Committee through the ins and outs of state government purchasing policy. His unenviable task faced two primary challenges: capturing the attention of legislators for what at first glance appears to be an extremely dry (though important) subject matter, and the not so distant rumbling of what sounded like an impact drill having a go at the walls of the capitol building.
To the casual observer, the sound’s dampening effect on the deliberative affair would have been stark and shocking. This auditory obstacle was in no way conducive to the austere deliberation demanded by the subject matter; however, the demeanor of the meeting’s participants barely changed. For you see, they have become quite accustomed to the challenge of attempting consideration of policy sans a deliberative environment.
That’s because for the past 12 years, the capitol building has been in a state of perpetual construction.
State government leaders share many characteristics with the middle school, proficient Minecraft player: the constant building and tearing down in their attempt to craft the perfect homage to their particular government agency or institution.
Here’s the briefest overview of this wasteful tendency as it has occurred during the time that I have been a legislator:
In 2007, the western side of the capitol filled with the noise of unnecessary construction as the legislative leaders set about to remake the House according to their design preferences. They had observed that the chamber’s design aesthetics varied from office to office. They wanted uniformity and they stripped out the legislative offices and redesigned them—complete with entirely new furnishings. This included a luxurious re-make of the large House Lounge that is situated directly behind the House chamber.
Soon thereafter, the Supreme Court abandoned the capitol building for their own massively overbuilt, debt-financed, Versaille-esque attempt to outdo the grandeur of the capitol itself.
In 2013, with the Court’s capitol offices now vacated, the capitol again filled with the sounds of construction as legislators assumed control of the Court’s square footage and embarked on a renovation of the Court’s old offices.
I took satisfaction in the fact that the House leadership at the time actually sought to drive down the cost of this renovation by considering multiple offers from contractors—an unnecessary but important step because the Legislature has exempted itself from bidding laws. The House’s resulting renovations were so utilitarian and functionally-focused that one particularly observant capitol insider described them as “looking like Walmart,” — a statement that, though perhaps motivated by pejorative sentiment, made me quite happy.
This second renovation notwithstanding, state officials almost immediately set about on yet another massive construction effort. They issued many millions of debt for a complete overhaul of much of the capitol. It was a bad decision. Instead of issuing debt, and embarking on a massive re-make of the building, the Legislature could have remedied some of the building’s deferred maintenance concerns with a modest appropriation of one time funding.
This bad decision necessitates large yearly debt payments and has wreaked havoc with the state budget.
Not inclined to pay this bill from existing revenue, a few days ago, the Legislature proposed the largest tax increase in the modern era of the state, a not insignificant part of which was earmarked to pay the debt payments on the massive renovation project. That tax increase was so grandiose in scale that it would have raised Oklahoma’s gas tax to second highest in our region, placed a new system of taxation on the wind, geothermal energy, moving water, and even set about to tax the sun—an absurdity that led the attentive observer to opinion that: “There is not remaining a single item in God’s creation that the Oklahoma Legislature doesn’t deem itself capable of taxing.”
In Oklahoma we can be sure of two things: the wind (subject to a future tax levied by the Legislature) and the perpetual indulgence of state officials in their endless game of taxpayer-funded Minecraft.