Piling On

Inside Full Circle Bookstore, OKC.  ID’d by Steve Hunt

When I read the October 5, Tulsa World, Readers Forum piece by Curtis Shelton and David Autry of the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, “State Budget Crisis?  What Budget Crisis?”, I was so disappointed that my hometown newspaper which had recently touted its new fact-checking mission would give space to the OCPA that I resolved I would not leave it unchallenged.  So I penned a letter to the editor, too long by a couple of hundred words, and emailed it in with much satisfaction because I not only pointed out shortcomings of Shelton and Autry’s drivel, but I also chided the World for printing it.   Back came a response that the editor liked my letter, but it was too long by about the number of words I wrote criticizing the World—go figure.

Actually the suggestion was not to drop my critique of the World, but to submit it separately from my letter responding to the OCPA’s piece; I did as suggested, and my eloquent epistle appeared Sunday, October 15.  But before I could bask in the glory of my erudite argument and dazzling data, another letter to the editor appeared October 12, penned by T. E. Connor and titled “More pie in the sky from political hacks”.  Mr. Connor chides them for claiming our state’s impending $500 million budget hole can be plugged by simply zeroing out the “pet projects” of “special interests” without providing any specifics.

I think Mr. Connor is spot on with his criticism.  You see the OCPA has been offering a series of “Cost Avoidance” recommendations throughout the special session and #8, by the OCPA’s Trent England, is “Make Low Priority Agencies Non-Appropriated”.  He lists three, probably after checking the list with his Board of Directors.  They are the J. M. Davis Gun Museum in Claremore, $288,000 appropriated, the Oklahoma Spaceport authority, I think $321,000 appropriated, and the Oklahoma Educational Television Authority, $3,608,000 (my numbers are best I can discern from the 2016 state financial report and budget).  In other words, Mr. England’s big idea to get to $500 million is saving $600,000 and killing off Big Bird in Oklahoma.

Three days later I got to bask in the glory of my letter which demonstrated, as I have many times in this Blog (see Same Song, Umpteenth Verse for a recent example) that the OCPA aggregates school revenues by double counting some and including fund balances as a way that grossly exaggerates the funding truly available to budget.  They also base their recommendations for funding teacher pay raises on the belief (or lie if they know better) that all school revenues can be used for any purpose.  I argued that if they so distort facts with respect to funding our schools, then they likely are employing similar misinformation about the state budget as a whole.  I loved it.

Then a mere three days after that, being today, the World’s new partnership with Politifact bore fruit with an almost full page fact-check of the Shelton/Autry/OCPA allegation that “state government spending is at an all-time high. The state is on track to spend more in this fiscal year — more than $17.9 billion — than at any time in state history.”  Jon Greenberg of Politifact explained how it is deceptive to talk about state spending levels over time without considering the impacts of increasing population and inflation, as most who work with such data would readily do.  He then concluded that the OCPA allegation is “Mostly False”. 

The fellows at the OCPA had scored a little win by getting the World to devote a quarter page to their drivel on October 5, something they could add to their monthly board productivity report, but then got slammed with a full page, in color, “Mostly False”.  Kind of makes this World subscriber proud and willing to keep paying for the print edition.  Actually the fellows got let off pretty easy by Politifact.  What is worse, in my opinion, than not considering inflation or population growth, is not discerning among the various components of the state budget that are not fungible, i.e. money that comes from the federal government for Medicaid program reimbursement cannot be used to hire more corrections workers.  As I have repeatedly explained before (see The Education of Little Thinker ) when the OCPA fellows have whined about all the money going to public schools in Oklahoma, the fact that more kids are eating and buying school meals at higher prices, that student activities like athletics and choirs are collecting more gate receipts and cookies sales, and that local communities are voting bonds to build and renovate their children’s school facilities, does not mean those increasing revenues can be used for teacher pay raises.

Here’s how Governor Fallin’s FY 2016 budget book states it:  “As a result, revenues available for discretionary spending are declining in years when total revenues are growing.  In these scenarios, many government functions receive fewer appropriated, or discretionary, dollars through the General Revenue Fund while other functions receive more apportioned, or mandatory, dollars.”   For many reasons, some within the Legislature’s control but many not, all state revenues are not fungible or available to be spent on any state function.  The OCPA’s passion for simply showing total revenues or total expenditures is of no help to those legislators who are trying to balance the state’s budget.  Our state’s challenges are more nuanced than that and you would think a think tank could think clearly about it.  Either clear thinking about policy is not their real mission or they simply are not capable.  Their statement is not only “mostly false” it is also mostly deceptive and/or irrelevant.

As always lunch is on me to the first to ID the photo location.

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