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The budget’s in for FY 2019

We’ve been down so long, this looks like up

In the 1960s, the New York City poet and folksinger Richard Fariña published a novel titled “Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me.” This title applies to Oklahoma’s FY 2019 state budget, approved by the House and Senate last month. After several years of large shortfalls and repeated rounds of budget cuts, including mid-year cuts the past three years, lawmakers were finally able to pass a budget that kept funding for all agencies at least flat, provided modest increases for some critical programs and services, and included over $350 million for teacher pay raises.

State agencies were appropriated a total of $7.6 billion for FY 2019, an increase of 8.6 percent compared to the final FY 2018 budget. These appropriations will be the largest in state history, surpassing the $7.2 billion budget in FY 2015; however, when adjusted for inflation, next year’s budget remains 9.4 percent below the budget of FY 2009.

The largest increase went to the Department of Education, which will receive $2.9 billion in FY 2019, a 15 percent increase from its final FY 2018 funding. The Department received $353.5 million for teacher pay raises, $52 million for raises for support staff, $24.7 million for increased benefit costs, and $50 million in increased state aid funding (of which $33 million is dedicated to textbooks and instructional materials).

These increases will boost total common education funding to its highest level ever in Oklahoma. But even with a $50 million increase, state aid funding will remain some $145 million less than it was in FY 2009, even as K–12 enrollment has grown by over 50,000 students. As important as the pay raises are for moving Oklahoma teachers towards a fair and competitive salary, schools remain in desperate need of additional operating support to reverse cuts that have led to fewer teachers and support professionals, larger class sizes, fewer courses and programs, and outdated textbooks and supplies.

Most other agencies will receive funding increases to cover state employee pay raises that were approved in special session. As with teachers, pay raises will help close some of the pay gap for state workers, whose average salary has fallen 24 percent below their private sector counterparts on average; however, the state employs 3,000 fewer workers than it did in 2009, and most agencies are receiving no new money to fill vacancies and address critical staffing needs.

As Senate Appropriations Chair Kim David stated, “this budget in no way makes everyone as complete and whole as we were in 2009.” Overall, 39 of the state’s 65 appropriated agencies will remain 20 percent or more below their FY 2009 appropriations, without adjusting for nearly a decade of inflation.

Most lawmakers accept that the growth in the FY 2019 budget is only a first step towards restoring funding to levels that will allow state agencies to properly fulfill their missions, and they have committed to building on this progress next year and beyond. It will be the job of all Oklahomans to hold them accountable to this promise.

David Blatt is Executive Director of Oklahoma Policy Institute.