- Associated Press - Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Here are excerpts from recent editorials in Oklahoma newspapers:

The Norman Transcript. May 20, 2018.

Nothing illustrates how dysfunctional our state government is better than the Oklahoma Department of Health fiasco.

Here’s a quick recap: In September, word began to spread that the state health department was in financial trouble.

Then came unbelievable news: the department needed millions of dollars in emergency funding.

Almost 200 people were fired, funding for key programs across the state was slashed.

Health Commissioner Terry Cline, along with other key members of the department’s leadership, resigned by the end of October.

The health department received a $30 million emergency appropriation from the Legislature. But while state agencies have had to deal with budgets cuts for years, the horrid financial state of the health department was confusing. How did this happen?

Turns out, it didn’t. For some reason, department personnel didn’t understand how the funding they received could be spent, which led them to believe they were running out of money when they weren’t.

A multi-county grand jury investigation revealed last week that while top officials had mismanaged money and created a “slush fund” to use on pet projects, according to Oklahoma Watch, money wasn’t actually embezzled.

So, no one has been indicted for this colossal example of collective stupidity.

In other words, 200 Oklahomans lost their jobs and key programs went underfunded because our state health department has an incredibly archaic accounting system and was run by a series of people too stupid or careless to ensure the millions of public dollars the department is appropriated every year went to pay for what they were supposed to pay for.

The rhetoric from conservatives in the Legislature for the last few years has been that the state doesn’t need more revenue, it just needs to spend less and be more careful spending tax dollars.

While we disagree with the first point, it’s clear the state can’t afford to ignore the rest of the philosophy, either.

The new Agency Performance and Accountability Commission could be part of the solution.

Then again, maybe we just need qualified, ethical people at the top positions in state agencies, who are given the resources they need to be successful.

Oh, and a state law that allows our attorney general to prosecute people who are as grossly negligent as the previous leadership of the state health department.

___

Tulsa World. May 22, 2018.

The Freedom Caucus had a point when it took down the Farm Bill last week.

The caucus, whose membership includes some of the most conservative House Republicans, helped defeat the bill Friday. Ironically, the Caucus supported the most important elements of the legislation - farm supports and tighter work requirements for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program recipients - but voted against it to make what they see as a more important point: They want a full House debate on immigration legislation (including President Trump’s proposed border wall) and Speaker of the House Paul Ryan won’t allow it for political reasons.

Democrats, upset by the SNAP work requirements, also voted against the bill, and it failed.

The Farm Bill is important. It is critical to keeping the nation’s food supply and its safety net stable.

But immigration policy is also important, and it’s not right that Ryan has prevented full, fair debate. Alongside the border wall debate, there ought to be a discussion of equitable treatment of Dreamers, young people unwittingly brought across U.S. borders as children, who have known no other home and who are ready and able to contribute positively to society.

Again, the roadblock is Ryan.

The Farm Bill is one of those critical but usually uncontroversial bits of federal legislation. We remember fondly the days when former Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, R-3rd District, was able to work across the aisle and across the rotunda to engineer passage of a bill that kept the tractors rolling and the hungry fed, but new leadership and a more contentious political climate have jinxed that possibility.

Practically speaking, the House failure is probably only a delay. A better Farm Bill will likely come out of the Senate, where the SNAP benefits were unlikely to make it past a filibuster anyway.

Wouldn’t it be ideal if the ultimate result were a Farm Bill that both sides could support? One with SNAP rules that prevent malingering, but don’t take food out of the mouths of hungry families without good cause?

That might be a Pyrrhic victory of the Freedom Caucus, but they’ve always seemed to prefer being right to being the prevailing cause, and on the need for an immigration debate, they’re right.

___

The Oklahoman. May 22, 2018.

A multi-county grand jury investigation concluded financial mismanagement at the state Health Department caused lawmakers to divert $30 million in “emergency” funding to the agency that was never needed and remains unspent. The initial reaction of many lawmakers doesn’t inspire confidence they will take appropriate corrective actions.

Facing major shortfalls in recent years, lawmakers often drained agency revolving funds to fill gaps elsewhere. Investigators believe Health Department officials responded by shifting millions into a federal grant account that legislators were unlikely to touch because of potential conflicts with federal regulations. The agency then used that account as a slush fund.

“We think that they probably set this account up so the Legislature wouldn’t come back and sweep that money,” said State Auditor and Inspector Gary Jones.

In other words, government bureaucrats hid millions while decrying “cuts” they could easily handle, indirectly exacerbating shortfalls elsewhere. And Jones said he believes other state agencies are doing the same.

That remains to be seen, but this episode suggests major reforms are needed in the budget review processes used by the governor’s office and both chambers of the Legislature. It’s not clear most policymakers grasp this fact.

Take Rep. Emily Virgin, D-Norman, who is House minority caucus chair. Among other things, she tweeted “agencies were forced to try to keep accounts from being raided by the legislature.” Do Democrats really want to defend the Health Department’s financial shenanigans, even implicitly?

Rep. David Perryman, D-Chickasha, complained the Health Department “has had to do more with less often for fear of losing funding .” But the audit showed the agency’s funding had actually increased.

Admittedly, the minority party has little control over the budget process. But the reactions of Republicans were little better. Senate Republican leadership issued no statement in immediate response to the grand jury report. Since their oversight failures played a role in this debacle, that silence is damning.

House Speaker Charles McCall, R-Atoka, noted some Health Department officials may have lied under oath to a House investigative committee, implying charges should be considered. That’s a good start, but McCall also needs to outline how House members will improve oversight.

Rep. Tom Gann, R-Inola, was one of the few to advocate for specific reforms, arguing agency heads should be made personally liable for the accuracy and completeness of agency financial reports, as is done in the corporate world.

“If we are ever going to be the state we can be, we must break the mentality of tax and spend to ‘get something done’ and create a culture of transparency of state resources so when there is a need the Oklahoma taxpayer is assured the money is needed and will be spent properly,” Gann said.

The grand jury and auditor’s office suggested some reforms, such as routine performance audits. Attorney General Mike Hunter called on legislators to immediately enact changes “to avoid the same kind of abuse in the future” and to assure the public “we are serious about earning their trust back.”


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