Oklahoma budget cuts have effect on services

Tulsa World, October 18, 2009
Randy KrehbieL and Barbara Hoberock

What does a 5 percent cut on state agencies mean to the average Oklahoman?

Probably not much, unless you have kids in public schools. Or you're on Medicaid. Or you're a first-time mother-to-be and poor.

Effect on education?

State schools superintendent Sandy Garrett said three months of cuts have already affected common education. "Obviously, it is way beyond the bounds of the budget each district planned," Garrett said. She doesn't believe districts are laying off teachers but are putting off purchases and limiting travel and extracurricular activities.

You may hardly notice it, unless you depend on the state Health Department for your flu shot or you're a senior citizen receiving hot meals from the Tulsa Area Agency on Aging.

Or you're a state employee doing your job and someone else's, too.

State agencies say they're doing their best to absorb cuts caused by general revenue shortfalls of nearly 30 percent without affecting services to the public. And to a large extent they are, at least temporarily, by trimming operating costs and stretching workers a little thinner.

A lot of administrators sound like the Oklahoma Health Department's Toni Frioux, the assistant deputy commissioner for Community Health Services. "Seventy-eight percent of our budget is personnel," Frioux said, "so as we have been experiencing these declines in revenue, we've reduced our personnel … a lot."

Most state agencies took 7 percent budget cuts for the fiscal year that began July 1. For each of the last three months, the Office of State Finance has imposed an additional 5 percent, across-the-board reduction of general fund allocations.

Treasurer Scott Meacham said those reductions are likely to remain in effect for the rest of the budget year, which ends June 30.

The cuts don't affect self-funded agencies and don't apply to dedicated revenues such as the state fuel tax.

That means some agencies are hit harder than others. The state's higher education system, for instance, derives only about half of its revenues from the state's general fund, while the Department of Corrections is almost totally dependent on it.

Corrections already has cut payments to private prisons holding state prisoners, but Department of Corrections Director Justin Jones said the department is contemplating employee furloughs early next year.

The Department of Public Safety has eliminated its Oklahoma Highway Patrol cadet academy and said it will have fewer troopers on the highways.

The Oklahoma Health Care Authority, which administers the state's Medicare programs, said the 5 percent cut means a loss of $26.4 million for the fiscal year. That will trigger the loss of about $75 million in federal funds.

"Up until now, we've absorbed it, but we can't absorb it any more," said Health Care Authority spokeswoman Jo Kilgore.

The range of those decisions is limited. By taking more than $300 million in federal stimulus money, the state agreed not to reduce benefits or eligibility for basic programs.

That could mean reducing the number of prescriptions the state's Medicare program covers or reducing or eliminating adult rehabilitation treatments for up to 9,000 Oklahomans.

State Department of Health programs affected by the cuts include Children First and the Office of Child Abuse Prevention.

Children First, which provides in-home nurse visits for low-income women with first-time pregnancies, will lose two nurses in both Oklahoma and Tulsa counties.

Cuts to the Office of Child Abuse Prevention are expected to eliminate services for about 180 families.

Cuts by the Commission for Human Services will mean fewer funds will flow down to the Tulsa Area Agency on Aging, which will reduce its home-delivered meals by 50 percent, said Executive Director Clark Miller.

The move will affect 1,100 home-bound seniors and result in nearly 96,000 fewer meals being served, he said. The agency also is looking at closing three senior nutrition sites.

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