The Oklahoma Board of Equalization is composed of seven members. Six members are statewide elected officials and the seventh is the appointed secretary of agriculture. The board is responsible for certifying the revenue the Oklahoma Legislature will have available for appropriation in the coming fiscal year.
On Tuesday, the board – which is chaired by Gov. Stitt – voted to approve $9,640,475,940 in revenue to be appropriated by the Legislature for fiscal year 2022. That is an increase of $1.8 billion over fiscal year 2021. Three observations:
First, Oklahoma government’s budget has grown more than 86% in the past 18 years. The state budget in 2004, the first year Republicans gained control of the Legislature, was $5.16 billion. In 2022, it will be $9.6 billion. That is amazing, unimaginable growth! According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the per capita income in the Sooner state during the same period was flat. In 2004, the per capita income in the Sooner state was $29,908. Last year it was $28,422. An Oklahoman making $50,000 in 2004 would be earning $93,000 doing the same job if their personal income had grown at the rate of Oklahoma’s government budget. That has not happened in the private sector. Oklahoma’s government revenue has outpaced taxpayers' income, and taxpayers should ask why.
Second, the commitment to right-size, downsize, systemize, and restructure Oklahoma government is not there. When Republicans were campaigning to take control of the Legislature 20 years ago, they stumped on the fact Oklahoma government was the largest employer in the state. It still is. In 2004, Oklahoma had more state employees per capita than any state in the country. It still does. The GOP'ers promised to make Oklahoma government agencies more efficient and productive if voters would give them control. Voters gave them that control in 2006, but after nearly two decades of Republican control, Oklahoma state government revenue continues to climb and the Oklahoma state government footprint is virtually the same. Taxpayers should ask why.
Third, Oklahomans need to be vigilant in holding elected officials accountable. In the challenging times of COVID-19, crazy weather, and Zoom meetings, in-person accessibility to elected officials become difficult. The first bill the Legislature passed and the governor signed was Senate Bill 1031, which temporarily allows modifications to the Open Meeting Act allowing for virtual public meetings. The governor hinted the changes could pave the way for some permanent changes in the OMA. Citizens need to make sure the OMA is protected and these "temporary modifications" do not result in elected officials ignoring their constituents. Elected officials should be creative in finding ways to communicate with their constituents during the pandemic. The governor said virtual meetings had increased the number and amount of participation by Oklahoma citizens in their government. That may be true, but a virtual meeting is not a substitute for looking an elected official in the eyes and asking them to justify a vote. When the pandemic has passed, citizens should demand these "temporary modifications" to the OMA be lifted by the Legislature.
Gov. Stitt said he would like to see Oklahoma state government use the increase in revenue to replenish the rainy day fund, and to strategically invest in infrastructure projects to help grow the economy. Those are good ideas, but is it past time to fulfill a two-decade promise to reduce the size of Oklahoma government?
Steve Fair is the District 4 Oklahoma Republican Party chair.