Patrick B. McGuigan
OKLAHOMA CITY – There’s good news and there’s bad news in Oklahoma.
The good news is that the year 2017 began with state Treasurer Ken Miller’s report that after a 20-month slide in gross tax receipts, Oklahoma government’s income (gross receipts, derived from the taxes paid by workers and businesses) had reversed course and begun to grow
Eight months later, those revenues were “higher than collections during the prior 12 months for the first time since August 2015, and monthly gross receipts topped collections from the same month of last year for a seventh time since January.”
With the November 2017 report from Miller, some might have said happy days were here again: Gross receipts jumped 12 percent in a single month. At the pre-Christmas meeting of the Board of Equalization, state officials ratified a projection of some $450 million in growth revenue for the coming year.
However, all that good news is “only” the second biggest state government news story of 2017, in CapitolBeatOK’s annual analysis. First and third are the crises facing Oklahoma government as a result o pooor management of resources, including the biggest scandal in Oklahoma politics since the County Commissioner prosecutions of the 1970s-80s, which led to 230 convictions.
The top story of the year is the burgeoning scandal at the Oklahoma Department of Health.
As personnel costs and salaries increased from 2011 to 2016, top agency staffers were robbing Peter to pay Paul. Even as low energy prices put recurring pressure on state finances — preventing the big budget growth of earlier years — millions of dollars were mis-allocated at the agency.
The most egregious decisions diverted money intended to benefit Oklahomans suffering from HIV and full-blown AIDS to cover recurring expenses. The money in question flowed from federal programs, meaning the explicit avoidance of guidelines connected to the federal dollars is a serious, and possibly criminal, matter.
In all, at least $30 million was mis-allocated by agency officials. The abuse of a federal program puts $115 million in U.S. aid at risk.
Top agency leaders, including Commissioner Terry Cline, have resigned. A multi-county grand jury is investigating. Speaker of the House Charles McCall, R-Atoka, established a special investigation committee, hoping to get all the facts.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is at the door.
The primary cost-drivers in state government have been, for many years, expenditures relating to Health, Corrections and Education at all levels.
Lots of attention is being devoted to the first, and that will no doubt continue to dominate news coverage in the near-term. An inexplicable veto of a budget fashioned in 2017’s first special session exacerbated a crisis in governance.
In the area of Corrections, a broad popular and political consensus for reform has existed at least since 2012, when the Justice Reinvestment Initiative program was enacted – then ignored for several years by legislative leaders and the state’s chief executive.
Some modest progress toward criminal justice reform was made in 2015-16, including several positive reform recommendations made by the governor’s task force. Then, in November 2016 voters approved two crucial statewide ballot measures to reclassify many non-violent offenses and flatten (in the model of several states) incarceration rates and, over many years, ease pressures on the prison system.
What might have happened if both health and education had been subjected to regular audits (every two-to-four years) to identify and correct mismanagement, let alone outright fraud?
The fourth top state government story of 2017 is the steady transformation of lifelong conservative Republican Mary Fallin into an advocate of higher taxation and government expansion.
The continued turmoil for the death penalty is Oklahoma government’s fifth top story for 2017.
For more than two years, after a series of shocking botched executions at the state prison in McAlester, Oklahoma has not tried to put anyone to death. A lengthy process reviewing protocols for the process continues, with some state officials saying new standards may come in 2018. However, the bipartisan Death Penalty Review Commission last spring encouraged reforms in legal procedures that would, if implemented, have the practical effect of keeping the unofficial moratorium in place for the foreseeable future.
The long delay has given time to lawyers for some death row inmates – most notably Richard Glossip (http://www.capitolbeatok.com/reports/killing-richard-glossip-world-premiere-to-be-held-in-oklahoma-city) and Julius Jones– to continue making the case for actual innocence.
Turmoil under the dome (at the State Capitol) reached historic levels led, this past year, to ten announced (and one recanted) departures from the Legislature. While some resignations were due to normal circumstances (individuals seeking greener pastures in the private sector), many were due to personal misbehavior, including sexual misbehavior. Thus, the year’s sixth top story was the most resignations departures in a given legislative cycle since the 1920s – and that’s with a year of that cycle still ahead.
Future challenges for Native interests, and relations with the state government, will no doubt include disposition of a murder case headed to the U.S. Supreme Court that exempted from government prosecution a crime committed on land arguably under tribal jurisdiction.
Just outside the top 10 is a moment that came with only modest attention from news organizations. After roasting politicians and other powerful people for decades (beginning in 1928), the Oklahoma City Gridiron folded its tent and passed into history.
The robust exercise of the liberties guaranteed in the First Amendment – in the form of an annualtheatrical parody of state politics and culture – was unable to survive changing consumer tastes in live entertainment and the aging of a volunteer workforce of journalists and their associates.
Also left out of the top 10, but worthy of mention, is Oklahoma’s wide-open 2018 governor’s race. Two of the Republican candidates (Gary Richardson and Gary Jones) have long advocated recurring and consistent audits of state agencies, long before that became conventional wisdom. Whether they get credit or political advantage for that in the months ahead is an open question.
Plenty will be said about the governor’s race and other statewide campaigns in the months ahead. The results next November – good, bad or indifferent – will no doubt hold a notable place in the coverage of Oklahoma state government here, and elsewhere, in the next 12 months.