Top Oklahoma lawmakers mull ways to make state budget process more transparent
Critics say the closed-door budget process is opaque
Oklahoma's Senate president said he has a detailed plan to give the public a front-row seat to watch the state budget come together, but action on that won't happen during special session. (Getty Images) (This image cannot be republished without a Getty subscription.)
OKLAHOMA CITY — Facing criticism that their state budget process is secretive, legislative leaders pledged to increase the transparency surrounding how lawmakers craft a massive spending plan appropriating billions of taxpayer dollars.
In calling for a special legislative session, Gov. Kevin Stitt urged lawmakers to pass measures to make their annual budgeting more transparent, including a requirement that spending bills be made available to the public three days before any votes.
Senate Pro Tem Greg Treat, R-Oklahoma City, said he has a detailed plan to give the public a front-row seat to watch the state budget come together, although action on that won’t happen in the special session.
Noting he was displeased with the way the current year’s budget was unveiled and that he opposed some of the items included in the spending proposal, Treat said he’s working on a plan “that’s going to blow (Stitt’s) proposal out of the water.”
The Oklahoma Legislature has faced criticism for years that the state budget process is opaque.
Leading up to the legislative session, lawmakers hold public hearings to go over state agency budget requests. But key lawmakers largely write the multibillion-dollar state budget behind closed doors throughout the four-month legislative session. The final budget is typically only revealed with just a handful of days remaining in the session.
Democrats and some rank-and-file Republicans have complained that they’re often asked to vote on a series of budget bills before they’ve had time to read and digest all the details.
At times, Stitt has complained about his office being left out of budget negotiations, prompting lawmakers to point out the Legislature, not the executive branch, is tasked with writing the state budget.
Next year, the Senate will publicly unveil its budget proposal within the first half of the legislative session. The Senate Appropriations Committee will also hold public hearings for lawmakers to dive into key budget areas, Treat said.
House Speaker Charles McCall, R-Atoka, pledged on Wednesday that budget bills would be public for 24 hours before being voted on in committee. In the past, bills have been voted on within hours of being posted publicly.
Andy Moore, founder and CEO of the civic engagement nonprofit Let’s Fix This, praised the lawmakers’ comments as a “welcome surprise.”
The state budget process has lacked transparency in the past, he said.
“Even if the public doesn’t follow the budget process, we are all affected by it because it funds the core services of our government,” Moore said. “There’s not really an opportunity for the public to comment on the budget itself once it’s been revealed and before it’s been voted on.”
Giving the public a glimpse at what could be in the budget weeks before the end of the legislative session gives residents time to reflect on the real-world implications of the proposed spending plan, he said.
The Oklahoma Policy Institute, a Tulsa think tank, published a report last year showing states, on average, publicly deliberated over their proposed budgets for 82 days in 2021. That same year, Stitt approved Oklahoma’s budget just three days after it was revealed to the public, according to the report.
Noting he pushed for public agency budget briefings in his first year as speaker, McCall said he has taken steps to make the process more transparent.
“Are there other opportunities for us to be transparent in the process? We’re open to that,” he said.
McCall said Treat had not shared any details of his budget transparency proposals with members of the House despite Stitt directing the Legislature to address that specific issue in the special session.
McCall said he’s not opposed to Stitt’s idea of having budget bills be public for 72 hours before being taken up for a vote. But McCall added the Legislature should not be alone in adopting transparency reforms.
“I do expect that if it’s good for the Legislature … the transparency also needs to exist in the executive branch,” he said.
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