Editorial: Lots of winners in the Oklahoma budget; public education, mental health are big losers | Editorial

ByKatherine S

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Oklahoma’s priorities are outlined in the state budget approved by the Legislature and waiting for Gov. Kevin Stitt’s approval. There are quite a few winners, and public education is the big loser.

The budget of $9.8 billion was largely crafted behind closed doors by a small group of Republican lawmakers and rolled out about a week ago. That’s been the typical way state budgets have been created.

This budget is nearly 10% higher than last year, and more money would go into savings, which are expected to hit $2.6 billion next year.

Among the top priorities in the budget are about 5,000 people with cognitive and developmental disabilities who have been waiting for waivers to get services in their homes or community group settings ($32.5 million). The waiting list for these services is more than a decade long. This amount is necessary, and we hope changes were made to ensure that the list doesn’t grow again.

Lawmakers carved out nearly $700 million to lure an electric vehicle battery manufacturer, known to be Panasonic, to Pryor’s MidAmerica Industrial Park. Whether the company has decided if that’s enough to make the move is unknown.

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The Oklahoma Highway Patrol would get about $14.2 million for troopers to get a 30% pay hike. Higher education would receive a 7.45% bump, including $17 million for scholarships as incentives to enter the teaching profession.

Oklahomans would get rebates of $75 per individual or $150 per couple, taking about $181 million from the budget, to be paid in December.

Lawmakers passed — but many questioned — the undefined projects in the $250 million for the Progressing Rural Economic Prosperity Fund. With the problems of state vendor contracts in the past two years, lawmakers have reason for skepticism.

By far the biggest loser is public education. It received a 0.5% increase, equating to about $17 million. However, that amount is line-itemed to things like DNA kits for parents who are worried about kidnappings.

Yet, you can expect elected officials to continue to criticize public school outcomes. They can only blame themselves when they care more about school restroom policies than classroom sizes and retention of experienced teachers.

It’s worth a reminder that 22 senators and the governor were willing to pay about $161 million to private schools through a voucher scheme. Senate Bill 1647 was narrowly defeated by a vote of 22-24, so it never advanced. It will return next session.

Brain health also remains on the lower end of priorities. The state Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services shows a 5.78% bump, or about $18.6 million. Included in the funding are provider rate increases and family court expansions.

Oklahoma’s brain health problems are significant and worsening.

We have a youth suicide epidemic with a rate at least 32% higher than the national average, a 12% increase in Oklahoma deaths from addiction and suicide during the pandemic, and a 40% jump in the number of people living on Tulsa’s streets.

State Question 781, passed by voters in 2016, remains unfunded. The law requires taking savings from reduced prison populations and putting it into local mental health programs, distributed to county governments. The tab is $50 million so far. Lawmakers are willfully violating this law.