How long do you think the Oklahomans was able to review the state’s $ 7.7 billion budget from when it was made public until it was sent to the governor for signature? ? Three days. (Which, by the way, was the second shortest timeframe in the country last year.)
My colleague Paul Shinn wrote an article on the Oklahoma Policy Institute blog last week about his three decades of observing the state’s budget process. Meanwhile, he noted that Oklahoma has moved further away from transparency. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
By the 1990s, Oklahoma’s budget process was more open and participatory, often spanning the entire session. Finance bills were presented at the start of the session, including the early opportunity for public action. Additional budgetary issues were resolved until the end of the session and many bills were discussed in public meetings.
This transparency has practically disappeared in recent years. The budget process is rushed with virtually no opportunity for public input. Lawmakers introduce fewer budget bills, which are prepared behind closed doors by a handful of lawmakers and their staff. These bills are made public for the first time – even to most lawmakers – just days before the closing days of the session. Such a short review period deprives the public of a voice on their own government’s priorities.
A more open budget process can both inform and engage the public. Transparency is essential to democracy, especially for public budgets which represent how our government prioritizes competing demands for increasingly scarce resources. The process, however, will not be transparent until the Oklahomans themselves demand it.
While the current state of Oklahoma’s budget process is not the fault of current lawmakers, incumbents today have an opportunity to turn things around. They can present finance bills at the start of the session. They can hold public hearings and accept comments and testimony.
I’m encouraged to see that the State Senate will be holding budget hearings for most state agencies this year, which is the first time this has been done in some time. This is a small but important first step towards an intentional investment in the future success of our state.
Transparency builds trust. We place our trust in the elected leaders and they should give it back to us by reopening the Oklahoma budget process. Oklahoman deserves a public budget discussion that lasts more than three days in May.
Ahniwake Rose is the Executive Director of the Oklahoma Institute of Politics.