Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt talks about special session priorities during a press conference Tuesday at the Oklahoma Capitol. (Photo by Kyle Phillips/For Oklahoma Voice)
Three cheers to Oklahoma’s governor for his calls to make the Legislature’s budget process more transparent.
For years now, the state’s multi-billion dollar budget has largely been built behind closed doors over four months. The process evokes images of dimly lit back rooms where only a handful of select legislators — and likely influential lobbyists — determine the priorities of the entire state.
Every year, legislators typically unveiled the budget at the absolute last minute, limiting the ability of Oklahomans — and even the majority of lawmakers from both parties — to scrutinize the final product.
Critics say the entire process is very opaque. In particular, Democrats, who represent large swaths of urban Oklahoma, continue to complain that the interests of their constituents aren’t being considered.
But, hopefully that’s all about to change.
Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt has been ramping up pressure on lawmakers to make the annual budgeting process more transparent.
He even called the Republican-controlled Legislature back into special session to fix the problem. Among other things, Stitt wants a requirement enshrined into law that budgeting bills be unveiled to the public three days before any votes.
That’s a welcome change.
The Oklahoma Policy Institute, a think tank, found that states on average publicly deliberated their proposed budget for 82 days in 2021, Oklahoma Voice reporter Carmen Forman reported. That year, Stitt approved Oklahoma’s just three days after it was publicly unveiled.
Now, Forman reports that Senate President Pro Tem Greg Treat, R-Oklahoma City, has developed his own detailed plan to increase public access to the process.
Treat said that he too was displeased with how the current budget was revealed, and that he’s got something cooking “that’s going to blow (Stitt’s) proposal out of the water.”
Details are still limited, but it’s a good thing that the most powerful Senate Republican is also calling for similar reforms.
Unfortunately, though, the Senate doesn’t seem to have much appetite for taking up transparency during the legislative offseason or during Stitt’s special session.
Senators adjourned the special session and went home without taking any action on the governor’s transparency calls. The House can’t send any reforms his way without the Senate.
It’s not exactly clear though whether the Oklahoma House is willing to overhaul the closed-door process.
Speaker Charles McCall, R-Atoka, hasn’t exactly given Stitt’s calls an enthusiastic thumbs up. Instead, he said he’s not opposed to a requirement that the bills be public for 72 hours. But he also said transparency reforms are needed in the executive branch.
Deflecting isn’t helpful.
The questions for lawmakers is whether they’re OK with continuing to operate under such a veil of secrecy, and are the Oklahomans that voted them into office well represented under the current process.
If not, doing away with the secrecy surrounding the legislative budget process could be a good place to start.
Any reforms would give Oklahomans a lit path in the darkness — a way to engage in the political process.
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