http://www.cherokeephoenix.orgOklahoma Watch is a nonprofit corporation whose mission is to produce in-depth and investigative journalism on public-policy and quality-of-life issues facing the state. COURTESY
Oklahoma Watch is a nonprofit corporation whose mission is to produce in-depth and investigative journalism on public-policy and quality-of-life issues facing the state. COURTESY

Largest state budget falls short of restoring years of cuts

Oklahoma Watch
05/08/2018 04:30 PM
OKLAHOMA CITY – Lawmakers have passed the largest state budget in Oklahoma history. But that doesn’t mean state agencies have recovered from years of cost-cutting.

The House of Representatives voted 63-31 April 27 to approve the $7.5 billion appropriations bill that will be $724 million – or 10.9 percent – more than the state’s current fiscal year budget.

The bulk of the new funds will be used to boost salaries for teachers, school support staff and state employees. And millions of additional dollars will go into the school funding formula and targeted initiatives for criminal justice, social services and other programs.

GOP legislative leaders celebrated the passage of the measure that now will go to Gov. Mary Fallin for her consideration. They acknowledged it wasn’t perfect but hailed it as an achievement – the first time in years that the state budget wasn’t cut.

But an Oklahoma Watch analysis shows the budget will ultimately do little to reverse years of reductions to education, health care, public safety and other state agencies.

About two-thirds of the 63 agencies getting a funding boost this year are receiving extra money strictly to fund employee pay raises as a result of legislation that passed this year.

More than half of the state’s larger departments will still receive less this year than they did in 2009 – the last year before revenues began to drop as a result of a nationwide recession followed by a downturn in the oil industry. Lawmakers largely responded by cutting budget and using one-time savings.

The difference between the state agencies’ 2009 and 2019 budgets is even more striking when the numbers are adjusted for inflation.

Just to keep up with the inflation rate, the Legislature would have needed to pass an $8.1 billion budget – nearly half a billion dollars more than what was approved for the 2019 budget.

Senate Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Kim David, R-Wagoner, called the 2019 budget a “fantastic beginning” that is “just the first step” toward pouring more money into education, health and other key services.

Others cautioned against applauding the 2019 budget, saying the proposal falls far short of undoing the damage from years of reduced or stagnant budgets.

“After a decade of failed tax cuts led to multiple revenue failures and devastating budget cuts, there is still much work to be done to repair the damage,” said Minority Leader Sen. John Sparks, D-Norman. “Instead of celebrating that the proposed budget avoids agency cuts, we should take the time to negotiate revenue measures that will allow us to really invest in education, health care, core services and infrastructure.”

Who’s Getting What

Public schools are among the biggest winners in this year’s budget, with the Department of Education receiving an increase of $480 million, or nearly 20 percent, over the current $2.4 billion budget, which was cut halfway through the fiscal year.

Common-education increases include $365 million for the teacher raise package, $52 million for support staff raises, $33 million for textbooks and $17 million to be added to the funding formula.
Budget increases for other state agencies include:

• $24.6 million for the Department of Human Services for foster care, elder care and developmental disability services, including beginning to address the years-long waiting list for such services.

• $11 million for criminal justice reforms.

• $2 million to the Legislative Service Bureau for agency performance audits.

• $4.8 million for the Department of Corrections to implement an electronic offender-management system.

• $4 million to the Office of Emergency Management for disaster relief.

• $400,000 to the Department of Agriculture for rural firefighters.

Much of the rest of the new money goes toward state employee pay raises totaling $54 million that the Legislature approved. That money, spread out among agencies’ budgets, accounts for all or most of the funding increases most agencies will see.

That leaves little or no money to restore the years of budget cuts lawmakers have approved due to the numerous budget shortfalls or mid-year revenue failures seen over the past decade.

The State Regents for Higher Education, for example, received a $7.8 million increase compared to their current funding. This represents only a 1 percent increase over the past year and barely makes a dent in more than quarter-billion dollars cut over the decade.

Chancellor Glen D. Johnson said the regents are thankful to Fallin and the Legislature for the increase, as well as an extra $7.5 million that will go toward concurrent enrollment. But he said in a statement Thursday that he will continue to stress the importance of higher education funding.
“Data clearly show that states with a high percentage of college degree holders have higher per capita incomes and stronger economies,” he said. “We will continue to make the case that there is no better investment to ensure a brighter future for Oklahoma than the investment our policy leaders can make in higher education.”

Other agencies that have seen a drop in state funding since 2009 include:

• Department of Transportation (decrease of $41.8 million, or 20.1 percent).

• Office of Juvenile Affairs (decrease of $19.5 million, or 17.3 percent)

• Department of Health (decrease of $20 million, or 26.9 percent)

• Department of Veterans Affairs (decrease of $7.9 million, or 19.7 percent)

• Department of Environmental Quality (decrease of $3.2 million, or 33.2 percent)

• District Attorneys Council (decrease of $6.7 million, or 15.8 percent)

Joe Dorman, a former Democratic state lawmaker, 2014 gubernatorial candidate and current head of the nonprofit Oklahoma Institute for Child Advocacy, said it is a relief that many of the agencies his group works with won’t be cut again. But in light of the decades of budget cuts, this budget shouldn’t be celebrated, he said.

“I’m happy we’re seeing a little boost, but we can’t rest on our laurels,” he said. “After seeing multiple years of financial crises, it is going to be some time before we get a lot of these agencies to be fully funded so they can perform their mission.”

Oklahoma’s growing population is also putting pressure on state coffers.

Census Bureau estimates show Oklahoma has gained about 213,000 people over the past decade. This often translates into more duties for many of the state’s safety-net programs.

“Child welfare services is a perfect example,” Dorman said. “It’s great that our state employees are getting a boost in their salary, but we also need money to hire more employees as their caseloads go up.”

Money Only Goes So Far

When adjusted for inflation, only four of the state’s larger agencies will be getting a higher appropriation than they did in 2009.

Funding needs persist even for these departments.

The Education Department’s proposed budget of $2.9 billion is $40 million over 2009’s inflation-adjusted amount.

But as the two-week teacher walkout showed, many educators don’t think that is enough. This is partly because since 2009, student enrollment statewide has increased by about 40,000.

Meanwhile, the Department of Human Services, Oklahoma Health Care Authority and the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services have also seen their budgets increase during this period even when adjusted for inflation.

But these three agencies have been hit with a mixture of increased demand, federal funding constraints and mandated costs, such as the Health Care Authority’s having to assume a greater portion of the cost to train doctors.

The agencies also have experienced cuts in recent years.

The new budget for the mental health department still remains below its peak funding level despite getting a nearly $12 million funding bump this year.

“This doesn’t even get us back to your 2016 funding levels,” said Wendi Fralick, chief administrative officer with the Mental Health Association Oklahoma. “And this is not enough because we weren’t even meeting our needs with that funding.”

Fralick acknowledged that avoiding another round of budget cuts was good news because she doesn’t think the system could “manage” with fewer funds. But, she said, she hopes lawmakers won’t be content to simply avoid additional cuts in future budgets.

“I don’t want this to be just seen as a Band-Aid to keep advocates pacified,” she said. “We want them to come back with more funding.”


Assistant Editor – @cp_tsnell
05/18/2018 04:00 PM
TAHLEQUAH – Cherokee Nation citizens living outside the tribe’s 14-county jurisdiction are eligible for free one-year subscriptions of the Cherokee Phoenix thanks to a $10,000 disbursement from the principal chief’s office on behalf of At-Large Tribal Councilors Mary Baker Shaw and Wanda Hatfield. The Cherokee Phoenix recently received the funds and is taking names on a first-come, first-served basis until the money is depleted. “These funds that have been provided to the Cherokee Phoenix by the joint efforts of our tribal administration and our At-Large (Tribal) Councilors Mary Baker Shaw and Wanda Hatfield will go a long way in providing subscriptions to at-large citizens,” Executive Editor Brandon Scott said. “It has always been our goal here at the Phoenix to make sure that every citizen that wants a copy of the Cherokee Phoenix is able to get one. That is the sole reason we exist. Our success depends on our subscribers. Our ability to remain independent relies solely on the funds we receive from subscriptions, so these funds are not only assisting at-large citizens they are also assisting us in remaining independent. I’d personally like to thank Councilors Baker and Shaw as well as the administration for making this donation possible.” Scott added that there are no restrictions on receiving a free subscription other than living outside the CN jurisdiction and being a CN citizen. Using the fund, at-large CN citizens can apply to receive a free one-year subscription by visiting, calling or writing the Cherokee Phoenix office and requesting a subscription. The Cherokee Phoenix office is located in the Annex Building on the W.W. Keeler Tribal Complex. The postal address is Cherokee Phoenix, P.O. Box 948, Tahlequah, OK 74465. To call about the fund, call 918-207-4975 or 918-453-5269 or email <a href="mailto:"></a> or <a href="mailto:"></a>. The Cherokee Phoenix also has a free website, <a href="" target="_blank"></a>, that posts news seven days a week about the Cherokee government, people, history and events of interest. The monthly newspaper is also posted in PDF format to the website at the beginning of each month. Cherokee Nation Businesses in November donated $10,000 to the Cherokee Phoenix’s Elder/Veteran Fund, which provides free subscriptions of its monthly newspaper to elders and/or military veterans who are CN citizens. No income guidelines have been specified for the Cherokee Phoenix Elder/Veteran Fund, and free subscriptions will be given as long as funds last. Tax-deductible donations for the fund can also be sent to the Cherokee Phoenix by check or money order specifying the donation for the Cherokee Phoenix Elder/Veteran Fund. Cash is also accepted at the Cherokee Phoenix offices and local events where Cherokee Phoenix staff members are accepting Elder/Veteran Fund donations. Those who donate can also have entries submitted for them into the Cherokee Phoenix’s quarterly artist giveaway. For every $10 donated or spent on Cherokee Phoenix merchandise, a person gets one entry into the quarterly drawing. The next drawing is July 2 when it gives away a two-piece, 12-foot fishing rod donated by Larry Fulton of Larry’s Bait and Tackle in Fort Gibson.
05/16/2018 04:00 PM
VINITA – Eleven Cherokee families received keys to their new homes on May 11 after participating in the Housing Authority of the Cherokee Nation’s New Home Construction Program. The 1,350-square-foot brick homes on Miller Street each feature a garage, three bedrooms and two bathrooms. According to Cherokee Nation Communications, $1.1 million was invested into the homes and infrastructure and will provide an estimated $28,000 in impact aid to local schools. CN citizen Candle Melton and her family received one of the new homes. The family of three had lived with her mother, and she said the home is a blessing. “We are so excited to have a brand new house to call our own. This would not have been possible without Cherokee Nation and the New Home Construction Program,” Melton said. “I am definitely proud to be Cherokee and cannot thank Cherokee Nation enough for their investments in our communities and for this wonderful opportunity to become the homeowners of a brand new home.” Principal Chief Bill John Baker implemented the program in 2012. The Vinita home recipients were selected from the HACN’s waiting list of applicants who do not own land. “Helping Cherokees improve their lives by establishing homeownership is creating stronger communities and healthier families in northeast Oklahoma,” Baker said. “We took these acres in Vinita and converted them into a desirable neighborhood of almost a dozen houses. Building safe and secure homes that are affordable for our citizens has established Cherokee Nation’s New Home Construction Program as the unparalleled model of excellence for Indian Country.” Chief of Staff and Vinita native Chuck Hoskin said the homes were the latest in decades of improvements to the area by CN. “In more than 25 years of serving the Cherokee people, I’ve witnessed much progress for this community. These new homes will have a lasting, positive impact,” Hoskin said. The HACN recently received a grant from Bank2 for the home program, which allows the HACN to keep the home recipients’ monthly payment at $350. Schools in the area also benefit from the homes because they receive $2,800 in federal impact aid for each enrolled student who resides in the homes. “The new Miller Street Housing Addition is a major boon for the town of Vinita,” Tribal Councilor Victoria Vazquez said. “Not only does it help citizens achieve homeownership, it’s also going to bring much-needed revenue to the school system through impact aid dollars.” Along with the homes, the CN also invested more than $100,000 in infrastructure development on Miller Street and within the housing addition. In addition to the 660 homes built through the program, the HACN has nearly 100 more homes under construction in the tribe’s jurisdiction. For more information, visit <a href="" target="_blank"></a>.
05/16/2018 02:45 PM
TAHLEQUAH – During the May 14 Tribal Council meeting, legislators unanimously amended titles 21 and 22 of the Cherokee Code Annotated, regarding the Violence Against Women Act. The amendment “authorizes special domestic violence criminal jurisdiction over non-Indians who commit domestic violence, dating violence, or a violation of a protection order.” The amended Title 22, Section 70 gives the Cherokee Nation special domestic violence criminal jurisdiction over a non-Indian defendant under certain circumstances, including if the offender resides or is employed within the CN jurisdiction or is a spouse, intimate partner or dating partner of a CN citizen or Indian who lives within the CN. Tribal Councilor Victoria Vazquez said the act’s impact on women is the knowledge that women will be valued, treated with respect and empowered going forward. “I voted for the VAWA to be enforced because it’s the right thing to do. Cherokee Nation leads all tribes in profitable businesses, education and health care in Native Country, and we should be the leader when it comes to the safety of our women and children,” she said. In conjunction, the Tribal Council also amended Title 12 of the Cherokee Code Annotated regarding the Civil Protective Order Act. The amendment gives the CN District Court full civil jurisdiction to issue and enforce protection orders if an act of domestic violence occurred within the CN boundaries. However, the amendment states that jurisdiction is not authorized over parties who are both non-Indian. The amendment also states the District Court has the authority to enforce any orders by civil contempt proceedings, excluding violators from Indian land and other appropriate procedures in matters that arise within the CN jurisdiction or within CN authority according to CN law. In other business, Councilors authorized the “execution of certain contracts that preserve sovereign immunity,” which allows CN to enter into certain contracts more efficiently. Legislators also passed a resolution accepting land from the Oklahoma Department of Transportation, which will allow permanent access and tribal upkeep of the road entering Sequoyah’s Cabin and Museum in Sequoyah County. The Tribal Council also amended the CN comprehensive operating budget for fiscal year 2018, increasing it by $5.9 million for a total budget of $693.1 million. Steven E. Barrick was also reappointed to the CN Gaming Commission.
05/14/2018 04:00 PM
TAHLEQUAH – The Cherokee Nation’s Office of Veteran Affairs will host a Memorial Day ceremony at 10 a.m. on May 25 at the Warrior Memorial east of the Tribal Complex. According to a CN email, the ceremony will honor the men and women who died while serving our country’s armed forces. The ceremony will include a laying of wreaths, a rifle volley and the playing of “Taps.” A breakfast will follow the ceremony.
05/14/2018 12:00 PM
PARK HILL, Okla. — The Cherokee Heritage Center will host gospel performances in Cherokee and English at the 19th annual Gospel Sing on May 19. Performances will begin at 1 p.m. The free event is open to the public, and guests are encouraged to bring chairs. The event concludes at 6 p.m. with a hog fry dinner. For more information, call Becky Adair at 918-456-6007, ext. 6160. The CHC is located at 21192 S. Keeler Drive.
05/13/2018 04:00 PM
NORMAN, Okla. (AP) — A Texas school district is trying to recruit teachers with a billboard campaign in Oklahoma, where teacher protests about salary and other education issues recently closed schools across the state. The Fort Worth Independent School District funded the billboards in Oklahoma City, Tulsa, Norman and Stillwater. The Norman Transcript reports the billboards were revealed Monday with the message: "Your future is in a Fort Worth classroom — teacher starting salary $52,000." According to the latest statistics from the National Education Association, the average salary for a teacher starting out in Oklahoma is $31,919. Only Missouri and Montana are lower. Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin signed legislation last month granting teacher pay hikes of about $6,100 and providing tens of millions of new dollars for public schools. But teachers demand more. Fort Worth Independent School District spokesman Clint Bond said the district is "impressed with the passion and commitment" of Oklahoma's teachers. He said the campaign is a means to tap into a pool of quality teachers and show that Fort Worth has something to offer. "I don't think there's any doubt in anybody's mind that those teachers are passionate about their students," he said. "If they were thinking about moving to somewhere like Fort Worth, I know they would think long and hard about that. Norman Public Schools Superintendent Nick Migliorino said he's familiar with neighboring states' attempts to draw Oklahoma teachers away. "We've been dealing with this for many years now," said Migliorino. "When we go to job fairs, the bordering states, not just Texas, have booths there, and they're giving out large signing bonuses and starting salaries that we can't even touch with decades of experience." He said Oklahoma has a ways to go before it can compete in the market for teachers. "We have made incredible strides as a state over this last legislative session, but there's much more to do," Migliorino said.