State agencies say they have funding needs, too
Teachers rallying for education have been grabbing the headlines, but other state agencies say they have funding needs, too.
Following years of budget cuts, the heads of agencies that serve the state's most vulnerable populations of mentally ill, abused children and prison inmates talk of the need for millions of dollars in additional funding.
Similar talk comes from officials of agencies that serve Oklahoma's best and brightest scholars, as well as those that build its roads and bridges and oversee other state programs.
In some cases, those needs seem overwhelming.
Take the Oklahoma Department of Corrections, for example.
The Board of Corrections recently voted to ask the state Legislature for an $8.7 million supplemental appropriation — just to make it through June.
But that request is a pittance compared to what corrections officials are asking for next year.
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Operating on a $485 million budget this fiscal year, they are asking the Legislature to more than triple that budget and give them more than $1.5 billion next year — in part to fund the construction of two new medium security prisons at a cost of more than $813 million.
Prison officials say the prisons are needed to help them replace aging facilities and continue to meet the needs of an ever-expanding inmate population.
Criminal justice reform initiatives have been touted as an alternative to prison expansion — suggesting the state should reduce penalties for nonviolent crimes and provide more mental health and substance abuse treatment options.
But those options also come with a cost, since mental health officials say they lack the funding to meet even the state's current treatment needs and would need more to expand their services.
The state has cut funding for the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services by $52.6 million over the last four years, which has resulted in the additional loss of $80.4 million in federal matching funds, said Commissioner Terri White.
"What that means is our system as a whole over the last four years has lost $133 million," White said.
The agency has responded by slashing psychotherapy services in half — impacting 73,000 Oklahomans suffering from mental illnesses — and making additional cuts to provider rates and behavioral health services.
Such cuts have consequences, White said.
"From just last year to this year, we have seen a significant increase in 911 emergency mental health calls," she said. The number of individuals that Oklahoma law enforcement officials transported to mental health crisis facilities more than doubled from 8,122 in fiscal year 2012 to 17,047 in fiscal year 2017, records show.
Other Oklahoma social service agencies also have sustained budget cuts in recent years.
Ed Lake, director of the Oklahoma Department of Human Services, said his agency has received increases in state appropriations over last three years, but has had to make $108 million in budget cuts because increases in operational expenses have far exceeded the increased funding.
The agency has received some additional state funds designated for child welfare reforms agreed to as part of a settlement to a class-action lawsuit over the abuse and neglect of children in state care. However, that has necessitated deeper cuts in other parts of the agency that assist the elderly and developmentally disabled, he said.
"There are consequences," he said. "For one of those years we had to reduce the rates we paid to providers for the disability and aging Medicaid waivers. That was a 3.5 percent reduction. We haven't been able to restore that."
Low provider rates are becoming "more and more of a problem" as the agency finds it increasingly difficult to find individuals willing to provide child care, foster homes, group homes and other services for vulnerable individuals, Lake said.
"Many of the front-line staff that are caregivers for these programs, they're competing in the market against 7-Elevens that pay more than what some of the providers are able to pay to find and retain decent quality caregivers," he said. "That is a large and growing concern for us."
DHS is asking for about $49 million in additional funding next fiscal year — not to fund new initiatives, but to bolster some provider rates and prevent further deterioration in services, he said.
Lake said striking teachers and unmet needs of other agencies present lawmakers with a difficult challenge.
"I don't envy them trying to figure this out with restricted revenues, but there are unmet needs in the state that do impact the most vulnerable of our citizens and these are core functions of government," he said. "Unfortunately, government tends to rocket from crisis to crisis when there's insufficient revenues to fund core services."
Higher education's funding needs are different from those of DHS, but Oklahoma Higher Education Chancellor Glen D. Johnson believes they also should be a legislative priority.
“From fiscal year '15 through fiscal year '18, state appropriations for public higher education have been cut $220 million (22 percent)," Johnson said.
Johnson said those reductions represent 60 percent of all budget cuts in state government and the state's colleges and universities now are operating on less state support than in 2001.
"Funding for public higher education has effectively been set back a generation," he said. "We have reached a tipping point — additional budget cuts will result in increasingly negative impacts."
For the Oklahoma Department of Transportation, funding cuts can have deadly consequences, said Mike Patterson, the agency's executive director.
From 1985 to 2006, the Transportation Department went through a prolonged time of static state funding, while costs of building roads and bridges continued to rise, he said.
By the end of that time, the condition of the state's bridges were the second worst in the nation, with 1,168 of the 6,800 bridges on the state highway system structurally deficient.
At the same time, the state highway system had 137 load-posted bridges — bridges deemed incapable of safely being crossed by legally loaded vehicles.
In 2005, the Legislature began earmarking additional Transportation Department funding to fix the problems and the number of structurally deficient bridges has since been reduced to 185.
"Our goal is to be one of the top five bridge condition states in the country by 2020 and we're going to make that," Patterson said.
The challenge now is to shift from bridges to making the state's highways more safe by doing things like adding shoulders to narrow two-lane highways, improving pavement conditions and building new roads where needed, he said.
The Transportation Department's efforts to achieve those goals has slowed in recent years as the Legislature has taken $840 from the department since 2010 to help fund other core functions of government, including $500 million taken in the last two years, he said.
That has resulted in project delays, including last October when the department was forced to remove 40 projects from its eight-year plan because of funding issues.
Failure to fix substandard roads has consequences, Patterson said.
Patterson said he reads the newspaper every day and sees those consequences in traffic fatalities.
About three weeks ago, Patterson said he saw a story about the Norton family of Dustin.
The family was traveling between Dustin and Weleetka on State Highway 84, a narrow highway with no shoulders, when their vehicle broke down.
The father, Eric Norton, 37, and his two boys got out to push, while the mother, Cindy Norton, 39, steered the vehicle. "This is one of those classic, horrific stories," Patterson said. "A truck came over the hill and around the corner — killed mom and dad and the boys jumped out of the way."
"I can't tolerate that," he said. "That's unacceptable. We're adding shoulders as fast as we can, but if we continue to erode our funding, we're not going to be able to do that as fast as we need to."