By State Rep. Scott Fetgatter
scott fetgatterTwo years ago, I was just beginning the journey to become your state representative. I campaigned on the hope that I could help repair and replenish rural Oklahoma. At the time, I lacked understanding of how hard it would be to get people in the Capitol to focus their efforts on rural Oklahoma. I didn’t know exactly what was going on that had caused state leadership to abandon rural areas of the state, but I knew that something needed to change.
At the beginning of my first session (last year), the Oklahoma Board of Equalization declared that Oklahoma had $878 million less to allocate than it did the previous year. In other words, we had to find $878 million in order to fund government at the same level that it was the previous year. This budget crisis began a series of events that lasted until this past week when we ended the Second Extraordinary Session of the 56th Legislature.
It would be an understatement to say that the last year has been crazy. Fortunately, in the midst of the craziness, some good things have happened for the people of Oklahoma. However, getting to this moment has not been easy. In fact, the efforts to move this state in the right direction have been nothing short of historic.
I came to the Capitol as part of the largest freshman class of lawmakers in state history. From the beginning, most of this class refused to participate in the same political games that have plagued our state for decades. We refused to trade our responsibility to the people of Oklahoma for the promise of leadership positions, campaign handouts or the perception of power. We demanded that leadership search for solutions for the biggest problems that are facing our state, and we felt that we needed to start with education funding.
It took some time and a regular carousel of 20,000 teachers visiting the capitol, but we finally passed legislation that recommits our state’s dedication to education and other core services. In the package, we gave teachers an average raise of $6,100 (biggest single raise in state history), $52 million for support staff raises, $33 million for textbooks, and an extra $17 million in additional classroom funding. This isn’t enough money to adequately fund education, but it’s the closest we have been in more than a decade. This year’s education allocation is the largest ever at $2.9 billion.
There are some rumors circulating that this raise is only for one year. This is false. These raises will remain in place indefinitely, and the education budget for this year has already been passed and signed by the governor.
Not only are we providing more money to education than ever before, but we are also passing a budget that either holds agencies flat or increases funding to those that are most in need like the Department of Corrections and the Department of Human Services.
Funding by itself isn’t enough. We also need better legislative oversight and accountability for how taxpayer dollars are being spent.
Last year, we formed the Agency Performance and Accountability Commission to audit the top 20 appropriated state agencies. The commission is auditing the first four right now – the Oklahoma Tax Commission, the Office of Management and Enterprise Services, the Department of Corrections and the District Attorney’s Council. The Department of Health is next in line. We will find cost savings through these audits and root out any inefficiency, waste or abuse.
After experiencing the last two years, I am pleased with the recent legislation to fund state agencies. I am pleased but not satisfied. I am not satisfied because in all of this, we have done nothing to create new jobs. We haven’t done anything to encourage businesses to land in Oklahoma. We must do more.
I consider it a great joy in life to serve you in the Oklahoma Legislature. If you have questions, concerns or feedback, please reach out to my office at (405)557-7373.