In last week’s article I described my initial optimism for this year’s legislative session and detailed the opportunities afforded to this year’s legislature. I explained my initial belief that a new generation of legislative leaders were coming into leadership who understood the need for reform.
My early optimism appeared justified. Appropriations officials held substantive and comprehensive pre-session budget hearings and the new House leadership carried this spirit of reform into the 2017 legislative session.
House officials took a significant step toward devolving the power of the Speaker of the House; they created a committee that appeared to have purview over the spending of the House monies that had in the past been spent at the sole discretion of the Speaker.
They also started releasing a daily floor consideration schedule. This document included a legislation list that House members could expect to vote on each day. As remarkable as it may seem, state representatives have historically voted on legislative matters with no officially set schedule. And that’s still the case, but the floor consideration schedule provided a first step toward a potentially important transparency reform: a schedule that informs the public when items of legislation will come before the House.
During the initial and middle stages of the session, appropriations officials continued to show their recognition of the broken budget making system.
The budget process in Oklahoma always been an atrocious system that provides the average legislator with minimal to no meaningful oversight. Agency officials appear before the oversight committees for a few minutes each year. Once the agency’s talking points have been proffered, there isn’t much time remaining for oversight — not that it matters, because legislators do not have the documents nor the knowledge to ask meaningful questions.
Legislators are routinely provided with high-level historical appropriation, revenue and spending breakdowns, but little meaningful documentation to show where the money actually goes once it has been appropriated. Even those who write the appropriations bills have limited access to or understanding of how to find granular-level agency spend data.
My optimism really grew this year when appropriations officials sent out a directive for the appropriations sub-committees to hold additional hearings throughout the legislative session. To me, this seemed like a mandate upon the appropriations sub-committee chairs: it’s time for real and meaningful oversight!
The additional hearings could provide the opportunity for budget process reform — a budget process that for the first time in recent history would enable legislators to get past the agency talking points and drill down to the specifics of agency spending.
In response to the directive, some of us on our appropriations sub-committees worked with our chairmen to generate a list of the documents that our sub-committee could use to provide this oversight. This included an array of documents and fiscal facts that I would suggest 95% of legislators — including legislative leaders — have never seen before.
We were ready to do our job and provide real oversight.
Sadly, it would never happen.
In February, as the legislative session officially commenced, the Governor gave her State of the State address. She called for a series of tax increases and established the narrative for the legislative session.
Over the next four months, the tax increase narrative grew into a full-fledged obsession, a rabid ideology that eventually consumed the energy of the Legislature and destroyed the potential for budget and process reform. It culminated in a catastrophic process outcome and a policy disaster of epic proportion that, unless reversed by the courts, could haunt Oklahomans for many years to come.
More next week.