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Editorial Roundup: Recent editorials in Oklahoma newspapers

Posted August 29

Here are excerpts from recent editorials in Oklahoma newspapers:

Oklahoma legislative accountability needed more than procedural change

The Oklahoman, Aug. 27, 2017.

Some senators want to mandate a line-item state appropriation process, saying that will increase transparency. There's nothing inherently wrong with such an approach, but it means lawmakers must also be willing to take the heat for budget decisions. That hasn't happened in the past.

Sen. Roger Thompson, R-Okemah, says he and six other Republican senators will file legislation to require the Legislature to approve line-item budgets for agencies appropriated more than $100 million. This would apply to the Department of Education; CareerTech; Department of Transportation; the Oklahoma Health Care Authority; the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services; the Department of Human Services, and the Department of Corrections.

Thompson notes line-item appropriations were common until 2009. Subsequently, lawmakers have mostly provided lump-sum appropriations in the name of increasing agencies' financial flexibility. But that change also allowed lawmakers to evade responsibility for budget decisions and place the blame for cuts on agency leaders.

To cite one example, past appropriations for the Department of Education were divided into four main categories: state aid distributed directly to school districts, funding to run the department itself, textbook funding, and a school activities fund.

The activities fund pays for a range of programs that have at times totaled close to $500 million. One well-known program is a $5,000 bonus given to teachers who obtain National Board certification.

In 2010, the Legislature reduced money going to the activities fund. Former state schools Superintendent Sandy Garrett, a Democrat, and the state Board of Education then redirected funding from a contribution to the teachers' retirement system and the health benefit allowances for certified and support personnel. That money was instead used for some "activities fund" programs. But it created financial problems for school districts and, more importantly, an attorney general's opinion concluded Garrett's actions were illegal.

In 2011, the Legislature again restricted the activities fund appropriation. Garrett's successor, Republican Janet Barresi, noted the AG opinion and that numerous resolutions from school districts across Oklahoma asked the department not to divert retirement and health benefit funds again. Those two expenditures accounted for $338 million of $400 million lawmakers allotted. Thus, the decision to fund teacher retirement and support staff insurance benefits ultimately led the agency to eliminate funding for the $5,000 bonuses that year.

Garrett and Barresi both drew criticism. But those legislators never specified what they would have cut instead. The political incentive is still for lawmakers to pass the buck and not take ownership of the budget they approve.

And even with line-item appropriations, lawmakers must be willing to do serious budget review. That didn't happen this year in the House, where lawmakers reportedly had only a single meeting per agency to provide glancing review of an agency's budget.

Altering budget procedures may do some good. But the greatest reform would be the involvement of legislators willing to engage in serious budget review and then take direct responsibility for their actions.

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Time's passing on a solution to Oklahoma's budget problem

Tulsa World, Aug. 27, 2017.

More than two weeks after an Oklahoma Supreme Court decision tore a hole in the state budget, we've yet to see a plan out of Oklahoma City to solve the problem.

Gov. Mary Fallin has said she's waiting to see if the Supreme Court will tear that hole a little wider before calling the Legislature into special session to address the issue.

There's some wisdom in that patience, but still we wish we were seeing some signs from Oklahoma City that a deal was nascent.

We aren't. Preliminary discussions last week were blown apart after Republican leaders in the House of Representatives used leaks and press releases to suggest (falsely) that Fallin was on the verge of a huge tax increase with — shudder! — Democrats.

Earlier this month, the Supreme Court ruled that a $1.50-a-pack cigarette cessation "fee" was actually a tax, and the Legislature violated several provisions of the state Constitution in the way it was considered and passed.

The high court's ruling puts several other revenue bills passed in the final days of the legislative session in doubt, too.

All the omens from Oklahoma City indicate there is not consensus among the state's top leaders on what to do next. Action should wait for the court's final decision, but it shouldn't wait long.

Each passing day is time lost to collect revenue on any solution that is possible. That means the problem gets worse — therefore harder to solve — the longer we wait.

One of the Constitution's rules is that tax bills must start in the House. That's too bad, because the current House and its backward leadership seems to be empty of ideas beyond obstinate resistance to tax increases and political gamesmanship.

It's time for leadership in Oklahoma City, and we're not seeing much of it. Gross production taxes, income taxes and legal versions of the cigarette tax all should be on the table, and sooner rather than later.

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Responsibility for teacher raises

The Lawton Constitution, Aug. 27, 2017.

While parents and politicians are concerned about teachers' flight to other states, maybe it's time to relook at all of the issues.

According to http://teachersportal.com/teacher-salariesby-state, Oklahoma's starting salary is $31,606 while the average is $44,373. To that add $5,000-plus for health premiums and retirement. Texas' numbers are $38,091 and $48,819. (Those numbers are from 2012-13 and provided by the National Education Association.) Teachers pay a portion for health care in Texas is our understanding.

Everyone knows that the Lone Star State has no personal income tax, but Texas' property taxes are very high compared to Oklahoma's, and school districts are supported by property taxes. Texas also has a higher cost of living.

According to http://money.cnn.com/calculator/pf/cost-ofliving/, a $45,000 salary in Lawton is comparable to a $48,229 salary in Abilene, Texas, which is also a city with a military installation. The report showed that housing, utilities and groceries cost more in Abilene, while health care was even and transportation was less.

Is it really surprising that 27.9 million Texans can afford to pay their teachers more than 3.9 million Oklahomans?

Interestingly, Lawton Public Schools recently provided a pay raise for teachers and support personnel, giving an $800 permanent pay increase and a $400 retention/incentive stipend for this year. Administrators managed better, saved more money and redirected it to employees. Good. The district didn't wait for the state to send cash everyone knows it doesn't have.

Maybe the solution for teacher pay raises is to be more effective and efficient at the local level, saving money where they can to take better care of local teachers.

The teacher flight is real, and it is unfortunate that the state Board of Education has issued 1,429 emergency certifications for this less-than-one-month-old school year because of vacancies.

Yes, teachers and other employees have the freedom to follow the money. That's no big surprise, either. How many readers have never done that?

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