The other day, Oklahoman reporter Chris Casteel tweeted out an article about a time when the Legislature was considering tax increases to get more money to education. It talked about the lack of funding for education relative to Oklahoma’s neighboring states and the related lag in educational outcomes.
Sound familiar? It might surprise you that the article was not written last month, but was published in The Oklahoman in the fall of 1989. Nearly three decades later, we’re in a strikingly similar situation as a state.
While no revenue-raising measure was passed in 1989, the Legislature approved House Bill 1017 just six months later, which included $230 million in new taxes. That money is still set aside for education and has been used to keep class sizes down, kickstart the state’s pre-K program and help fund school districts that struggle financially. But it has done little to move the needle when it comes to improving student outcomes in Oklahoma schools.
What was lacking with House Bill 1017 — and what’s lacking in today’s broader discussions about state funding in general — is a discussion about reforming the way our state governs. Is our budgeting process stable, fair and transparent? Do we empower state officials to effectively lead our state? Is our government run in the most open and efficient manner for the 21st century?
In 2017, the State Chamber Research Foundation set out to find the answers to these questions and more. We interviewed leaders in the business community, sat down with current and former state officials and listened to Oklahomans at regional forums across the state. From this input, we developed OK2030, a strategic plan to move our state forward.
Key to the OK2030 plan recommendations are a set of reforms to Oklahoma’s system of government. We believe the Legislature should consider modernizing the tax code to ensure an adequate level of state funding. But we also believe that discussion would be incomplete without a frank conversation about the inability of our state leaders to enact meaningful change, regardless of funding levels.
They say when you know better, do better. That’s why we’ll be highlighting some of the key government reforms recommended in the OK2030 strategic plan over the coming weeks.
Oklahoma remains near the bottom of key national rankings related to education, health and quality of life. Businesses and the people who work for them want strong schools, excellent health care and a good quality of life. Oklahoma citizens and companies have a valid and vested interest in ensuring that their tax dollars are spent efficiently and that government is structured effectively to create the greatest value for our community.
Twenty-nine years later, our state is still fighting many of the same battles. Unless we adjust our strategy, the articles written about our state will continue be unsettling for decades to come. Enacting the government reforms outlined in the plan at www.OK2030.org is an imperative first step if we’re going to truly move our state to the top.
Column by Dr. Jennifer Lepard published in The Oklahoman on March 16, 2018