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Saturday, May 26th, 2018Last Update: Wednesday, May 9th, 2018 06:18:06 AM

The Next Abandonment of Principle

By: Rep. Jason Murphey

The first warning sign happened last year on April 2nd of 2014. By a 20-3 vote, a legislative committee unexpectedly approved a 30 million dollar diversion of transportation funding.

Though that effort didn't gain traction, I was shocked by the insensitivity demonstrated by those committee members. By their vote, they attacked the very core of a defining reform issue of Oklahoma's current generation of elected officials.

These officials have greatly benefitted from campaigning on a platform of definable principles which are highly popular with Oklahomans. And, to their credit, from 2005 to 2013 they delivered on many of their promises.

The vote on April 2nd was the first warning sign that the current state government was preparing to abandon a key principle: revenues resulting from motor vehicle collections should be treated as a user fee and used exclusively for transportation purposes and not diverted.

The second warning came a month later.

The 2015 Fiscal Year state budget raided 10 million dollars from an emergency transportation fund designed to assist with emergency road repair. That 10 million dollars is sorely missed as many millions of dollars of damage have recent occurred to roads because of this spring's unprecedented rains.

Even after this point, I mistakenly believed state officials would remain resolute in their commitment to transportation. After all, this reform had proven to be a defining characteristic of their leadership, a characteristic which has been responsible for getting them re-elected time and again.

As this year's legislative session progressed, I defended the Legislature against what I thought was unnecessary fear-mongering by those who claimed there would be another raid upon road funds. I refused to believe the state would abandon such an important and defining principle.

I was wrong.

State government abandon all credible pretense of commitment to this principle. It not only approved the diversion of future motor vehicle funds, but with little legislative transparency it raided 50 million dollars from already allocated transportation funds.

If state government could so rapidly abandon this defining principle, what other important principles will it abandon?

Over the past two years this government has kicked the fiscal responsibility can down the road.

Legislators should have recognized the reality of a funding shortfall, and systematically stair-stepped the size of the budget downward. Instead, they kept the budget the same size by raiding various one-time funding sources to fund ongoing expense. The funding will have soon been spent but the expenses will continue to re-occur. This allowed legislators to avoid tough short-term decisions, but pushed judgement day until next year when some believe the Legislature could face a billion dollar funding deficit.

A billion dollar shortfall will send government officials scrambling for other funds to raid and principles to abandon.

The next principle on the chopping block may be the very successful effort to shore up the state's massive long-term retirement system liabilities. Over the past years, legislators have responsibly and systematically funded these liabilities in an attempt to restore the systems to fiscal viability.

This year, word got out about a proposal to raid one of the funding sources which seeks to shore up the retirement system. Normally, I would attribute this to rumor, because the Legislature's commitment to this reform has been absolute. Now things have changed and we must take each of these bad proposals seriously. Like the pre-shocks to an earthquake, I fear that this, much like the vote on April 2, 2014, may be a first warning sign.

If legislative transparency and transportation reforms were so easily abandoned, will the retirement system reform fare any better? If retirement system reform goes, what next? How many reforms will disappear before Oklahomans conclude that my generation of elected officials have abandoned principle to the point that we are indistinguishable from previous generations?

In the aftermath of this year's session, I concluded that we must make a stand here, do our part, speak up and remind our fellow elected officials of how we got here and why it's important to stick to our principles.

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