The lights are literally off at the Oklahoma State Capitol this week, a development that has instantly become an obvious and overused metaphor for a government paralyzed by political gridlock. Budget negotiations are supposedly still occurring while the building undergoes planned maintenance and renovations, but every day without the Legislature settling a budget deal seems to come with a new casualty.
This week’s victims of budget stalemate (and it’s only Monday, as I write this!) are families and young children serviced by the state’s Oklahoma Child Abuse Prevention (OCAP) programs. The Oklahoma Health Department – to save $3 million – has terminated nine contracts with organizations that help teach important skills to new parents.
One of those organizations is Parent Promise. The organization assigns each participating family a Parent Educator, who works with parents and guardians to ensure their kids are in safe, loving and nurturing environments. Parents learn, for instance, about shaken baby syndrome and how easy it is to seriously injure or even kill a crying newborn. Families can be connected with additional community resources like child care or job training, and Parent Promise offers a “resource closet” to financially stressed parents and guardians who need access to essentials like diapers and baby toys.
Because of budget cuts, Parent Promise now finds itself in the same place as rural hospitals, nursing homes, and mental health facilities: on the chopping block.
There is blame to go around for the current predicament. Agencies, one would hope, can surely find better ways to save money than eliminating programs designed to prevent child abuse and infant death. All conversations about the budget crisis, however, eventually lead back to the Oklahoma Legislature, which refuses to make the kind of compromises and concessions necessary to adequately fund state government.
Too many Republicans are unwilling to even consider tax hikes on high earners or large corporations. Too many Democrats are willing to watch state government implode to fuel the next political cycle with a message of “I told you so.” Meanwhile, the most immediate need – passage of a $1.50 per pack cigarette tax increase – has been held hostage by partisan finger pointing and bickering.
As one recent headline put it, Oklahoma’s budgeting woes have moved beyond a political crisis or a government crisis; we are facing a moral crisis. Our most vulnerable residents– our children, our neighbors with disabilities, our elderly– are being neglected.
Oklahomans are better than this. I hope our lawmakers remember that when the lights come back on at the Capitol next week.
By OICA CEO Joe Dorman