Perhaps you read these articles a few months ago and took note of my optimism about this year’s legislative session. As the legislative year progressed, you likely also noticed my sentiment devolve into strong disapproval. I have imagined the confusion of the reader who in the past six months suffered the whiplash effect of three months of optimism followed by three months of me describing the least principled/most unconstitutional and least transparent session in my eleven years of legislative involvement.
I have concluded that it might be helpful if I summarize the devolution of my personal outlook over the course of the last six months.
This session afforded two prime opportunities.
First, state government had driven up total state spending to what appears to be a record high at just under 19 billion dollars, even as a predictable and cyclical energy sector stagnation put the state under tremendous pressure to reduce spending.
The past two legislatures responded to the pressure not by focusing on spending reduction and new efficiencies, but by utilizing a gimmicky system of deficit spending and issuing toxic amounts of long term debt. This built a year-to-year deficit of about 600 million dollars, a deficit which provided this year’s Legislature with an excellent excuse for taking on the politically sacred cows of inappropriate and wasteful government spending, programs which I intend to describe in the upcoming weeks and months.
Secondly, a new generation of elected officials came to power in the House. This year was the demarcation point separating two generations of Republican leaders. Over the years I had optimistically speculated on the amazing potential of the second generation of leadership who did not have a linear tie to the corrupt culture of Oklahoma’s past nor to the responsibility of overseeing the massive spending of the past few years.
At some future point, I hope to have the opportunity to write about these observations in some detail. I personally knew some of these new individuals to be reform minded and I also knew they desired to be known for their reforms. I think some of them also realized the terrible damage done to the state’s budget by the overspending of recent years.
As the legislative year commenced I saw evidence to justify my optimism.
Specifically, the new appropriations officials seemed to realize the extent of the ineffectiveness of the appropriations process.
Prior to session, they conducted meaningful oversight and almost extensive budget hearings. These hearings were conducted in a way that let oversight officials get past the political grandstanding and agency pandering that dominated and monopolized much of the brief budget hearings of past sessions.
As an example, those who carefully observed the oversight hearing of the Department of Education could have picked up on a stunning fact; per pupil expenditures were increasing and have reached an all time high. They are not decreasing, as most members of the public and even legislators believed.
The careful observer was also struck with the thinness of the Education Department’s measurable outcome metrics. It seemed clear that education officials were struggling to show even the most minor improvements in education outcomes.
This enticed serious-minded legislators to ask: “If we are spending more money per pupil, why are Oklahoma’s measurable common education outcomes not increasing? Where is the money going if it isn’t resulting in better outcomes?”
The fallout from the hearing lit up the House email accounts in a way that I have not seen before. House education officials began dispensing an array of education funding documents. These appeared to prompt an ensuing dialogue that for the first time in my time in the Legislature indicated that all House members were becoming empowered through a real and meaningful discourse befitting of those who have been entrusted with oversight of the public monies.
The legislative session was off to an encouraging start and I felt that my optimism regarding the new leadership had been confirmed.
This all began to change with the Governor’s State of the State address, and next week I will detail the chain of events that transformed what I initially believed could be the best session of my eleven years into the worst of them.