Last week I wrote about the decade of debt during which Oklahoma lawmakers went on a debt-fueled spending spree that increased the average state debt per person from $95 to $694. This happened because of a terrible 1998 court decision allowing lawmakers to issue bonds without a vote of the people. Oklahoma lawmakers jumped at the chance and didn’t stop spending money until a May 23 vote that changed everything.
The 2012 legislative session wasn’t unlike the many sessions that preceded it. Just as they had in years previous, all throughout the four months of session, legislators anxiously awaited the inevitable decision by the powerbrokers about which bonds would be issued.
Only this time, unlike in past years, things did not go according to plan!
On May 23, House leaders called for a vote on what was widely viewed to be “the bond issue that could not fail.” The proposal called for $200 million in bonds to be used for the repairs of the State Capitol with excess funds going to other state-owned buildings in the area.
All too often, politicians lose touch with reality when appropriating money. They deal with large numbers so often that they might just as well spend $200 million as $10 million. Those who advocate for bond issues seem to know this and they also know that passing a big bond issue simply depends on hyping the need to the point where money becomes no object.
In this case, lawmakers were asked to write a blank check without knowing what the repairs would actually cost, but fortunately, some of us knew that blindly indebting the state by $200 million was insanity.
Ten years ago, the state had put a dome on the Capitol, a project that involved taking the roof off while keeping the building open for business. The total price tag of that project amounted to $21 million.
Now, 10 years later, we were being asked for 10 times that amount to repair the building.
Most thought the issue would pass through the House with perhaps a little opposition. But after a little more than an hour of debate, the vote was called, and to the shock of many, there were 60 “No” votes posted before the “Yes” votes even reached double digits.
The overwhelming defeat of the proposal (77-15) left many in shock. The aftermath of this vote produced a surreal environment in the House. For years, we had watched bond after bond win approval, sometimes by large margins. The dramatic shift was absolutely stunning.
The vote was so lopsided that ensuing bond proposals were not even brought before the House for a vote. The Legislature actually concluded its session without approving a single bond issuance.
In the just released 2012 state financial statements, the enormity of this vote was reflected in the fact that the amount of state general governmental debt did not go dramatically higher.
Based in part on that vote, the entire attitude of policy makers toward the issuance of debt has changed.
The new House leadership under Speaker T.W. Shannon has made it clear that issuing additional debt is not a viable issue. Many legislators now seem to understand the fiscally conservative values of Oklahomans. They believe it is immoral for today’s politicians to spend the money of future generations. Speaker Shannon understands that House members don’t want to vote for debt issuance and then try to explain to their constituency why they are out of step with this most important of Oklahoma values. This is especially true in the House of Representatives where the members are up for election every two years and are thus very close to the people.
Now, not only are bond issuance attempts rather unlikely, but important reform plans are already advancing through the legislative process. This includes the speaker’s plan to cap the amount of bonds that the state can issue. That proposal already has won committee approval.
In addition, a proposal by the speaker will be considered in the Government Modernization Committee this Thursday. Speaker Shannon’s proposal would allow the state to meet maintenance needs (such as those at the Capitol building) by first liquidating some the state’s unneeded and underutilized state-owned properties. This pay-as-you-go plan allows the state to avoid the costly debt issuances for deferred maintenance needs.
Perhaps, just perhaps, the years of massive debt issuances are coming to an end as fiscal sanity returns.
REP. JASON MURPHEY, R-Guthrie, represents House District 31, which encompasses all of Logan County and a portion of northern Edmond. He may be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org, on Facebook at facebook.com/JasonMurphey and Twitter.com/JWMurphey.