Oklahoma lawmakers gathered for the first official day of the legislative session Monday to hear Gov. Mary Fallin’s annual State of the State address. The Democratic Party praised the governor for finding focus in her initiatives.
House Minority Leader Scott Inman (D-Del City) described his party as being cautiously optimistic following the Fallin’s call to concentrate on education, healthcare and criminal justice reform this legislative session. But the majority and minority parties differ, Inman said, on how best to carry out those reforms.
"She's right on the three core priorities of the state of Oklahoma," Inman said. "She's just wrong in how we implement the policies for real change, and we hope the governor will listen to us and work hand in hand with us over the next coming months to solve real issues with real solutions."
Inman said funding initiatives like healthcare and corrections reform could create tension between the parties in the coming months. Fallin mentioned in her address tapping into state agencies’ revolving funds to help with budget restraints, something Attorney General Scott Pruitt found unconstitutional in November.
In response to Fallin's State of the State address to the Legislature, the Oklahoma Democratic Party released their response, included below.
Today Democratic leaders called on Governor Fallin to take a new direction and work with Democrats to focus on building a stronger middle class. We need to begin promoting economic mobility, providing access to affordable health care and increasing education funding for Oklahoma families. The Oklahoma Democratic Party’s response to the State of the State highlights several troubling economic indicators that show that Gov. Fallin’s policies are not working. Among those are the $300 million budget shortfall and a new report from the Institute on Taxation & Economic Policy showing Oklahoma’s tax system ranking 16th worst for fairness.
Oklahoma’s obesity and heart disease rates were mentioned in the State of the State address, but the one major option to provide better healthcare to hundreds of thousands of Oklahomans , accepting Medicaid Expansion dollars, was not. The truth is if Gov. Fallin accepted these funds it would provide $15.6 billion in economic growth over the next 10 years, create more than 13,000 jobs and save $692 million by insuring people who are now served at state cost by three state agencies.
She voiced a need for greater "educational attainment" but again no specifics on how to achieve that end. Under the Fallin Administration, Oklahoma leads the nation in cuts to education at -23.6%. How does she intend to restore that funding to meet the increased need in addition to dealing with the increase in student population? Every cut in state funding for higher education has been met with higher tuition rates, meaning fewer students can afford college or career tech. Students end up having higher debt loads when they do graduate. Plus, many students must work while attending school, which means they will most likely be unable to finish during a standard four-year term.
There was absolutely no mention of the problems that exist at the seven Veterans Centers across the state, and similar problems in the private-for-profit nursing homes in Oklahoma.
Governor Mary Fallin's speech was long on admirable goals, but extremely short on details of how to achieve those goals. She started off saying she wants "safer roads and bridges," but did not say where the money would come from to rebuild that infrastructure.
(Governor) Fallin is late to the game with regards to the needs of people with mental health issues. Oklahoma only spends $53.05 per capita to provide mental health services , falling far below the national average of $120.56. The recidivism rate for offenders going through the drug or mental health court system is only 25% versus the recidivism rate for offenders simply fulfilling their sentence in prison being nearly three times that rate.
How is the governor going to deal with the current prison problem, with our prisons at about 116% capacity and a shortage of staff that has about eight prison staff for over every 600 prisoners? This is an extremely unsafe condition for the inmates and the staff. Additionally, the workers in our state’s prison system have not had a pay increase in over seven years, causing staffing levels to fall to about 60% of needs. Why would anyone want to work under these conditions? How could the governor defend huge salary increases for agency heads last year, when the workers at risk need support the most?
The idea of the legislature only dealing with fiscal issues every two years is so old, it is new again. The Oklahoma legislature used to only meet every two years, but it was decided that to meet annually would be a better way to deal with issues in a more timely way. If the state cannot accurately predict a budget one year in advance, how can it do so for two years in advance? Can you imagine what kind of budget would have come from a legislature that budgeted with the price of oil at $110 a barrel, but has now dropped to less than half that amount? It would be disastrous. Raiding agency revolving funds is a short-term solution for long-term needs. The legislature did that last session and look at the results. A projected $300 million budget deficit that is probably, in reality, at least $400 million or more. This is just a "Band-Aid" approach for a long term shortage.
"Democrats are ready to work with Governor Fallin and Legislative Republicans when the focus is on building an economy that works for, not against, the middle class,” said Chair Wallace Collins. “But what we will not support is more of the same failed policies that rig the system and force workers and seniors to pay more just so those at the very top can get more breaks. It’s time for Republican leaders to abandon these failed policies that have left Oklahoma with deficits.”