The second day of testimony at an interim study on the effects of State Question 744 on the state budget painted an apocalyptic picture of Oklahoma’s future: criminals roaming the streets, waiting lists twice as long for mental health and substance abuse treatment and colleges cancelling courses and laying off faculty and staff.
First to testify was the Oklahoma Council on Public Affairs. Their point is that the way the federal government calculates the cost of educating a child is flawed. For example, the tax dollars that go into the Teachers’ Retirement Fund are not included. Also, the number of students is determined by Average Daily Membership, not Average Daily Attendance. So apparently it still costs the state money to educate children who aren’t there. OCPA had an independent audit of education spending which came up with an average of $10,942 per child. That’s roughly 50% more than tuition at OU for a year, by the way.
It was pointed out that one possible solution for Oklahoma should SQ 744 pass is reducing the number of children in public schools. This could be done by offering a $4,000 voucher for students to attend a private school. Fewer students in public school would mean the average per pupil would go up with no extra money spent. Do you think that’s what OEA’s membership had in mind when its leadership proposed this scheme?
State Transportation Secretary Gary Ridley was the first agency head to talk about how he would deal with a 20% budget cut which would be needed to free up the money to pay for SQ 744’s mandate. Ridley says not only would ODOT be losing state dollars, but since those dollars are leveraged with federal money, it means $400-million taken out of the eight-year plan, enough to replace 200 crumbling bridges.
Commissioner Terri White with the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services says a 20% cut is the kind of thing she worries about at night. She says there would be two choices: affect the fewest people by cutting services to those that need the most expensive treatment or affect the most people by cutting lower-cost services that help prevent problems from becoming expensive. She says waiting lists for residential drug treatment, for example, would be “in the thousands” instead of the hundreds it is right now. And she says the drug court program which is one-quarter of the cost of incarceration, would have to be cut, increasing the prison population.