- Associated Press - Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Here are excerpts from recent editorials in Oklahoma newspapers:

Tulsa World, Aug. 27, 2016

Trooper furlough threat is the latest blowback on an inadequate state budget

If it doesn’t get an additional $12 million, the Department of Public Safety says it might have to furlough employees, including state troopers, for up to 23 days.

That’s the latest blowback from lawmakers’ failure to fund state government adequately.

If the Department of Public Safety’s budget was the only funding disaster facing the state, the solution might seem simple. After all, the state has $140 million left over from last year’s budget, the result of an overaggressive rollback of promised allocations to state agencies in the face of fast sinking tax revenues last year.

But that’s not going to fly.

A trooper furlough is far from the only problem facing the state. Because of the state’s long-term inadequate funding of education, public schools are bleeding teachers, who are attracted to the much higher salaries offered in Texas. Because of last year’s budget failures, which were essentially made permanent in this year’s allocations, some school districts are so strapped that they’re closing on Fridays and increasing class sizes beyond what anyone thinks is a good idea. Funding cuts to the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services mean thousands of mentally ill Oklahomans will be turned away. Where will those people end up? Count on plenty of them to be warehoused in the state’s understaffed, overcrowded prison system.

Meanwhile, state colleges and universities are rolling back programs and closing classes because of the massive budget cuts they have suffered, and the state road and bridge program is short-changed and dependent on $200 million in borrowed money.

There’s another reason the $140 million “surplus” shouldn’t be used to solve the trooper problem. It’s one-time money. Using it to fund continuing costs, like trooper salaries, would only dig the state a deeper budget hole for next year. Built-in, one-time funding options in this year’s budget start that budget hole at $450 million to $774 million, by various estimates, and that assumes state tax collections stop declining, which hasn’t happened yet.

In short, the state budget is inadequate this year and will continue to be so as long as we keep doing what we’re doing.

The problem isn’t that the budget isn’t divided correctly. The problem is that the budget isn’t big enough. Oklahoma isn’t raising enough revenue to fund essential services like state troopers, public school teachers, school on Friday, mental health treatment and highway maintenance.

The real solutions are there when the state is ready to take them: Roll back unproductive tax incentives; roll back tax cuts; increase the state cigarette tax, and accept available money to expand health-care coverage and grow the state economy by hundreds of millions of dollars.


The Journal Record, Aug. 29, 2016

Oklahoma City a more desirable place

The Producers Cooperative has openly acknowledged that a deal had been struck for the 37-acre site members own near downtown Oklahoma City. They have been stringently tight-lipped, however, about the buyer’s identity.

We know now, thanks to some good reporting by The Oklahoman’s Steve Lackmeyer, that a group headed by Bob Funk Jr. will buy the property and eventually build a retail and residential development on 27 of those acres. He’s also struck a deal with the owners of the lumberyard next door, where three hotels are planned. The two groups have agreed to work together on a master plan for the contiguous properties near Bricktown and the site of the new convention center.

If Oklahoma City has learned one thing about Bob Funk Jr. since his return to Oklahoma City, it’s that his projects lack the smoke-and-mirrors wishfulness we’ve seen with others who promised a great deal but delivered little. Funk has done the opposite so far, muting the trumpets until his plans had solid footing.

Funk Jr., who is rapidly becoming the face of the family empire, stepped in first with the RedHawks, then the Barons, and finally the Energy. His company, Prodigal, has delivered on its promises while leaving a trail of generally satisfied vendors and customers.

There’s a hint in the Producers Cooperative deal that Funk is leading the next era of civic patrons who will leave the city better than they found it. There was a generation in the 1960s and ‘70s led by Kerr, McGee and Gaylord that largely carried Oklahoma City to the oil bust of the 1980s. They were followed by Nichols, McClendon and Ward, who collectively did more to renew the city than any municipal agency has ever contemplated.

Those men didn’t do it alone, and there are many others who deserve recognition, but few would disagree that those names belong at the top of the list.

Funk’s acquisition and plan for the site push him above the role of team owner and civic booster to bona fide civic leader. He may be the first of the next wave of businesspeople who will make Oklahoma City a more vibrant, desirable place, but there will be one or two or three others with the resources and inclination to join him. And that combination bodes well for the next generations of residents.


The Oklahoman, Aug. 27, 2016

No chance of Oklahoma copying federal plans for private prisons

Officials with the U.S. Justice Department announced plans recently for the agency to eventually end its use of private prisons. The reason? A steady decline in the number of federal inmates in recent years.

It would be nice if someday Oklahoma didn’t need to rely on private prisons, but that may never happen. Or if it does, it almost certainly will be many, many years from now, because what’s transpiring at the state level shows no sign of mirroring federal trends.

Sally Yates, deputy U.S. attorney general, noted in the agency’s announcement Aug. 18 that private prisons played an important role from 1980 to 2013, when the federal prison population grew by a whopping 800 percent to 220,000 inmates. Since 2013, however, the inmate count has fallen to 195,000.

Yates also said private prisons don’t maintain the same level of safety and security as those run by the U.S. Bureau of Prisons. This is similar to what Joe Allbaugh, director of the Oklahoma Department of Corrections, said in proposing that the DOC lease the empty private prison in Sayre in order to transfer inmates out of Oklahoma State Reformatory in Granite. Allbaugh says his agency can do a better job than private prisons, and at less cost.

The DOC’s board approved Allbaugh’s plan to transfer inmates from Granite to Sayre, in order to make room at Granite for inmates who were staying in community work centers. Those centers have been closed.

But Oklahoma’s use of privately run prisons, which began under former Gov. Frank Keating in the mid-1990s, is sure to continue for a good long while, simply because the need is there.

According to the DOC, roughly 5,900 state inmates are housed at private prisons in Cushing, Holdenville and Lawton (and another 1,500 or so are in private halfway houses). The total represents about one-quarter of the roughly 27,000 state inmates who are behind bars.

The Justice Department’s news won’t force employees at the one private prison in Oklahoma that houses federal inmates (it’s in Hinton) to look for new work any time soon. This is because the prison is under contract with the feds until 2020, and has a five-year renewal option after that.

Likewise, those who staff the private prisons in Lawton, Cushing and Holdenville can rest easy. Unlike the federal prison population, Oklahoma’s state prison population has only continued to grow over the past 30 years, and it shows no real sign of slowing significantly.

Oklahoma’s state prisons now stand at 109 percent of capacity, which is actually down a bit from just a few months ago.

However, roughly 1,400 state inmates are being held in county jails awaiting transfer into state facilities. As those transfers are completed, the prison capacity percentage will climb again.

The Legislature has approved small reform measures in the past few years that were designed to curb the prison population growth, but it will take sweeping changes to produce a decline in the population and reduce the crime rate.

Ultimately, it will also take money (and the political will) to build new state prisons to replace the many aging structures in the system.

Thus, private prisons will continue as a necessary piece of the corrections equation in Oklahoma.

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