by Randy Ellis Published: May 6, 2018 5:00 AM CDT Updated: May 6, 2018 5:00 AM CDT
Armed with a record $7.6 billion state budget and $474 million in new taxes and revenue hikes, Oklahoma lawmakers voted this year to boost spending for some agencies that have spent years cutting staff and services.
Teachers will get pay raises averaging $6,100, but new money appropriated for universities, vocational education and agencies like the Office of Juvenile Affairs won't come close to restoring a decade of funding losses for them.
The $474 million in new revenue comes from state legislators having raised the initial tax rate on oil and gas wells from 2 percent to 5 percent, raising the tax on gasoline by 3 cents a gallon and the tax on diesel fuel by 6 cents a gallon, adding a $1 per pack tax on cigarettes, taxing little cigars the same as cigarettes, allowing traditional roulette and dice games in tribal casinos, and requiring third-party online retailers to collect and remit sales tax.
Higher education's share of the new revenue will boost its funding by 1.02 percent over last year. However, the $776.7 million it will receive still will be 25 percent less than the nearly $1.04 billion the agency received 10 years earlier.
Likewise, Career Technology and Education will receive a 11.24 percent funding boost, but the $124.3 million it will get is 21.4 percent less than the $158.3 million it was given a decade ago.
Higher education has offset some of its lost revenue with tuition hikes, but that has resulted in increased financial pressures on students, and enrollment in the state's public colleges and universities dropped steadily from 256,213 in the 2011-12 academic year to 222,217 in 2016-17.
Marcie Mack, state Career Technology director, said she is grateful for the 11.24 percent funding boost her agency received this year, but it will only provide money for state-mandated pay increases and nothing more.
The agency has cut its workforce by about 35 percent over the past decade and cut back on some of its programs, she said.
Not all state agencies have experienced such cuts.
The state Transportation Department has seen its state highway funding for roads and bridges more than double over the past decade — rising from $362.7 million to $732 million.
The Oklahoma Legislature decided to ramp up transportation funding in 2006 following a stinging national report that ranked Oklahoma's bridges as the worst in the nation.
The Transportation Department has made great progress with those funds, decreasing its number of structurally deficient bridges from 1,168 to 185 and making improvements to more than half of the state's 673 miles of interstate highways, said Russell Hulin, the Transportation Department's deputy director.
Hulin said the Legislature's plan was to pay for road and bridge improvements with growth revenue so that the budgets of other agencies wouldn't be harmed.
Things didn't work out exactly as planned. A national recession, dramatic drop in world oil prices and legislative policy decisions like granting Oklahoma taxpayers a series of income tax cuts and giving tax breaks to the wind and oil and gas industries prevented anticipated growth revenues from materializing as expected.
Consequently, some state agencies have received budget cuts over the past decade that even a record $7.6 million state budget can't fully restore.
The Office of Juvenile Affairs, for example, has seen its state funding drop from about $112.3 million to about $92.8 million over the past decade.
Fortunately, Oklahoma is part of a national trend that has seen a dramatic decrease in juvenile offenders, said Steve Buck, the agency's executive director.
The number of juveniles in the state's system has dropped from 13,936 in fiscal year 2009 to 8,333 in fiscal year 2017, a decrease of 40 percent.
While that helps mitigate funding needs, the juveniles who are coming into the system are more likely to have extensive histories of trauma, substance abuse and mental illness, which increases the cost of their care, Buck said.
The agency needs more money to train and keep employees, as well as to pay for preventive programs and programs to help juvenile offenders re-enter society, he said.
The Oklahoma Department of Human Services will receive a $34 million funding hike this year. It has a long list of plans for the money, including giving agencywide pay raises, increasing provider and foster parent reimbursement rates and providing services to about 200 people with developmental disabilities who currently are on a waiting list of about 7,500 individuals.
DHS is actually one of the agencies that has received state funding gains over the last decade, with state appropriations to the agency increasing about 30 percent.
The new funding, plus money taken from other DHS program areas, has been used to pay for reforms agreed to as part of a settlement to a federal class-action lawsuit over the abuse of children in state care, said Sheree Powell, agency spokeswoman.
The agency has added about 900 child welfare employees, but has done away with about 1,200 other positions since 2015, she said. The agency also had to cut provider and reimbursement rates that it is now working to restore.
Teachers staged a walk out, and the Department of Education received a $480 million funding hike, but the walk out ended with many teachers upset that they didn't hold out for more. The $2.9 billion the Education Department was appropriated this year was about 15 percent higher than the funding it received a decade earlier.
State records are confusing when it comes to examining funding trends for the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services. Records show the agency's funding has gone up 60 percent, from $209.6 million to $337.1 million, over the past decade, but that's because a $128.3 jump in funding occurred in 2013 when the state transferred funding for the state's behavioral health Medicaid program to the agency from the Oklahoma Health Care Authority.
Commissioner Terri White is quick to tell anyone who will listen that the agency's funding pales in comparison to the treatment needs of residents of this state.
Only about one-third of Oklahomans who need mental health or addiction treatment currently get it, she said in a recent interview.
Chronic underfunding is also a constant complaint from administrators with the Oklahoma Department of Corrections, which received $503 million in state appropriations a decade ago, but then saw its funding drop below that level for nine straight years before being appropriated $517 million for the upcoming fiscal year.
Meanwhile, the state's prison population has grown from 24,730 to 27,115 since the end of fiscal year 2008. Corrections Director Joe Allbaugh wrote recently that staffing issues have become a huge problem at state correctional facilities, with the $13.74 an hour starting pay for correctional officers less than the hiring rate for an Edmond garbage truck driver or a bus driver in Oklahoma City.