OKLAHOMA CITY — Some public schools are starting summer vacation several days early. Others are contemplating a four-day week to cut costs. And more than 200 teachers in Oklahoma City were handed pink slips in March.
But instead of addressing a burgeoning budget crisis that threatens public education and other critical state services, Oklahoma lawmakers have been busy debating proposals to criminalize abortion, police students’ access to public bathrooms and impeach President Obama.
With more painful cuts to come, Democrats are accusing the GOP-controlled legislature of creating a “smokescreen” to distract the public from an estimated $1.3 billion shortfall caused by declining oil revenue and years of big tax cuts. Even some Republicans have criticized the focus on social issues as frivolous.
“They run this stuff out there because it excites the base,” Keith Gaddie, a political scientist at the University of Oklahoma in Norman, said of the social-issues bills. “But nobody ever banked on the public also looking up and saying: ‘You know, we like schools. We like hospitals. We like roads. We like to have stuff that works.’ ”
Oklahoma is among eight states facing serious budget shortfalls after a two-year drop in oil prices that radically curtailed revenue from the oil industry. Also contributing to Oklahoma’s budget crunch are years of income-tax cuts and corporate tax incentives, especially for oil companies. Last week, Reuters reported that oil industry lobbyists secured one of the lowest tax rates in the country, a tax break that deprived the state of $470 million last year alone.
This week, Gov. Mary Fallin (R) struck a tentative budget deal to raise $1 billion in fresh revenue. If approved by lawmakers, it would require state agencies to absorb about $300 million in cuts.
While awaiting the outcome of those negotiations, lawmakers in this Bible Belt state of 3.9 million passed a bill to make it a felony for a doctor to perform an abortion (since vetoed) and took up a measure calling for special accommodations for students who object on religious grounds to sharing restroom or shower facilities with transgender classmates. Another proposal advocated impeaching Obama — who lost all 77 Oklahoma counties in 2008 and again in 2012 — over his executive order requiring public schools to accommodate transgender students.
State Sen. David Holt, an Oklahoma City Republican, said he was “ashamed” of the hours spent debating transgender restroom use at the expense of pressing concerns.
“Oklahoma is a very socially conservative state, and I have always supported the types of bills that have come to the legislature, because my constituency largely wants me to,” Holt said. “But while students in my district were quite literally marching in the streets to the Capitol to plead with the legislature to do something about how the budget shortfall will affect their schools, we were addressing something that virtually no one had contacted me about and that was arguably not a pressing issue.”
Anger over the state’s financial woes, meanwhile, has begun to dominate local headlines. Early last week, more than 1,100 students who attend four schools in the Oklahoma City school district walked out of their classes to protest budget cuts that have led to teacher layoffs and program reductions, according to the Oklahoman, the state’s largest newspaper. The paper reported that during a visit to Oklahoma City on Sunday, the Rev. Jesse Jackson called for “a day for massive action” in response to proposed cuts to state services such as education, mental-health programs and Medicaid.
“You don’t do all this craziness by accident,” said former governor David Walters, a Democrat who argues that the emphasis on hot-button social issues is designed to divert attention from budget woes affecting education, health care and public safety. “I think they’re literally trying to create a smokescreen to cover what has to be one of the most irresponsible government periods in state history.”
State Sen. Nathan Dahm, the Tulsa-area Republican who authored the abortion bill, defended its timing and criticized the decision Friday by Fallin, a fellow Republican, to veto it.
Fallin’s communications director, Michael McNutt, said she was busy with budget negotiations and unavailable for comment. In a statement, the governor cited her “long history of championing and signing pro-life and pro-family legislation” but said the bill presented was vague and could not withstand a constitutional challenge.
Dahm said the Liberty Counsel, a conservative Christian legal organization, had offered to defend the legislation — which would revoke the medical licenses of most physicians who assist in abortions — at no charge. Supporters hoped that the measure, if challenged in court, could lead to the overturning of Roe v. Wade, the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1973 decision that legalized abortion nationally.
“There would not have been a cost to the state,” said Dahm, who is weighing whether to seek a veto override, which would require two-thirds majorities in Oklahoma’s House and Senate. “So we were well aware of the budget issues that we’re facing.”
As he campaigns for reelection, Dahm said, he finds constituents highly supportive of fighting abortion. And, he said, many voters voiced concerns after the Obama administration directed schools across the nation to provide transgender students with access to suitable facilities — including restrooms and locker rooms — that match their chosen gender identity.
Blake Gideon, pastor of the 4,000-member First Baptist Church of Edmond, an affluent suburb north of Oklahoma City, said some issues — such as road projects or educational funding — are just part of everyday civic debate.
Other issues, he said, are sacred.
“God’s word tells us very clearly that he’s for life, that he knit us together in our mothers’ wombs,” said Gideon, who was among a group of pastors urging lawmakers to pass the antiabortion bill. “That’s a sacred issue, and a sacred issue must be treated like a sacred issue and not like a common issue.”
In a state where 77 percent of residents describe themselves as “very” or “moderately” religious, according to Gallup polling, appeals to traditional values resonate with many voters.
“People on the coasts look at states like Oklahoma and say, ‘Look at these crazy people passing these right-wing bills,’ ” said Andrew Spiropoulos, director of Oklahoma City University’s Center for the Study of State Constitutional Law and Government. “Whereas people in Oklahoma City look at New York City passing an ordinance to ban large soft drinks, or several cities passing laws banning plastic bags in order to help the environment, and say, ‘Look at these crazy people on the coasts passing these crazy laws.’ ”
“The problem,” he added, “is that half of the country cannot understand what the other half of the country thinks and believes.”
In the case of Oklahoma, what many observers do not understand, Spiropoulos said, is that the budget is prepared by “a very small group of people” meeting behind closed doors — a practice frequently criticized by open-meetings advocates. “So the other members have plenty of time on their hands while they’re waiting on the budget to be completed,” he said.
In downtown Oklahoma City’s Bricktown entertainment district, Joe Clark, 44, and his girlfriend, Julie McBride, 46, both from the rural Oklahoma community of Durant, relaxed along a river walk in the shadow of tall office buildings for major oil and gas companies, and Chesapeake Energy Arena, where the NBA’s Thunder play.
Both registered Republicans who grew up Southern Baptist — Oklahoma’s largest religious group, with an estimated 650,000 members — Clark and McBride said they understand the need to address the budget crisis but don’t want lawmakers to ignore social issues.
“I feel like they should be able to handle both issues,” said Clark, wearing an Oklahoma City Dodgers T-shirt as he prepared to watch Los Angeles’s top minor league affiliate play. “I’m completely pro-life and would like to see our government taking steps to protect that.”
Kristin Lawson, a first-grade teacher at a public charter school in Oklahoma City, voiced frustration with lawmakers’ priorities.
“I think way too much of our state government’s focus has been on self-serving tax benefits and for big oil business with a lack of thought and attention and planning to our schools and other institutions that rely on state funding,” said Lawson, 54, a registered Republican.
Lawson, a divorced mother of three who has lived in Oklahoma for 35 years, attends a megachurch that she describes as extremely loving. Although she believes in God and prayer, she said, she considers her faith more of a private matter.
“Our state political figures seem to make decisions based on what will financially benefit themselves rather than what will have a long-term effect on our state’s children,” she said. “They spend precious time arguing and passing legislation on silly issues like who uses what restroom and often decide on things in the name of their religion, which gives religion a bad rap.”