Oklahoma budget woes abound. None of these woes have anything to do with Oklahoma’s Native Nations who have faithfully contributed to the State in multiple ways. No, these woes are self inflicted.
For the past ten years, the State of Oklahoma – in an calculated and measured manner – chose to cut taxes after taxes and brought what once was a fairly average for a state down to the bottom of the country compared to other states. The Oklahoma Legislature also freely chose to impose upon themselves the inability to pass adding revenue to the State unless they had a 75% ultra-super majority to make sure they were hampered by a slim minority of the State. Now, with the Oklahoma Education funding beyond repair; with Oklahoma school administrators and teachers with no further options; with even school boards around the state in an uproar of the lack of Oklahoma legislature efforts; now some State Legislators question and suggest that perhaps Tribal gaming could do more. This is finger pointing, plain and simple.
For Native communities and Tribal governments, at least one of those fingers always seems to get pointed towards Tribal gaming whenever the State needs revenue. This is unfortunate because Oklahoma’s Native Nations and Native communities around the State seem to be the only ones who have to pay multiple times for the State of Oklahoma’s poor budget decisions. Before we get to that however, it is important to say – Oklahoma Native Nations contribute more than their fair share. Nearly 10% of the funding needed for Oklahoma Education comes on the back of Tribal gaming, and Native Nations are VERY transparent about what is being paid. 88% of everything paid to the State of Oklahoma is to be spent for Oklahoma’s educational programs. This last year, that totaled almost $134 Million.
It’s no secret, you can see the breakout by each Oklahoma Native Nation in the chart below.
The total amount provided to the State of Oklahoma’s Educational funding for K-12 has been over $1.2 Billion.
Further, there is an economic impact by having Tribal gaming. Native casino’s bring in commerce to Oklahoma as it attracts people to not only enjoy gaming but to attend music concerts, restaurants, hotel stays, as well as retail, gas, and everything else visitors to Oklahoma casinos might do in addition to going to the casino. This economic impact to the State of Oklahoma is over $7.2 Billion. The State of Oklahoma, through its traditional revenue generation, has enjoyed a portion of all of that money.
Yet that’s not the end for Native American communities. Just like all other Oklahoma residents, Native families attend area schools. The local taxes paid by Native families also go to supposedly support the local schools, and of course the State of Oklahoma enjoys a portion of all of that money through the many State taxes already in place such as what is charged in a gallon of gas at the gas station, or the many other areas of revenue for the State. In essence, Native Americans are double dipped as they must provide funds to the State through their respective Native Nations via Tribal Gaming, as well as being residents of the State of Oklahoma, whose families live amongst the cities and counties of the State, and whose children also attend many Oklahoma public schools. There is an economic impact for the State of Oklahoma never considered when these “fingers” get pointed.
There is no question that Oklahoma’s Tribal Governments and Native communities pay their share (which as described is more than fair). The question is – is the State of Oklahoma spending the money provided to them by Tribal gaming for Educational funding?
Now, that’s a real question!
In a recent article in National Review, former U.S. Senator Tom Coburn, a Republican, pointed to two serious problems that the State of Oklahoma has that are the reason for these budget woes. First, Senator Coburn says Oklahoma has a lack of leadership.
‘“Our problem is leadership,” Tom Coburn, a former U.S. senator, tells me in an interview. “The problem is that the legislature hasn’t done its job. We need to pay teachers more — everybody agrees with that — but how they’ve gone about it is the wrong way.”’
“Oklahoma’s Education Disaster”, April 3, 2018, by Mark Antonio Wright; National Review. (https://www.nationalreview.com/2018/04/oklahoma-education-disaster/)
Secondly, Tom Coburn points out the real issue with our current Oklahoma leadership as he questions the legitimacy of their spending.
‘“We have enough money — more than enough money,” Coburn tells me, “to give every teacher a $7,000-per-year raise,” if the state government will simply do its job, cut waste, and spend taxpayers’ money efficiently.’
The real issue then is transparency.
Oklahoma’s Tribal Gaming is very transparent. The money going in is duly reported and is available for anyone to see. What the State of Oklahoma uses it for, and how they spend it – we simply don’t know. What we do know is that the State has gotten in trouble before for illegally spending money, even if it is specifically earmarked, such as the the Oklahoma Lottery Trust Fund set up to benefit Oklahoma Education. When the Oklahoma Lottery was established, it was set up in a trust fund that legally can only be used to enhance Oklahoma Education. It specifically was established so as not to relieve the State of Oklahoma of its responsibility to fully fund Oklahoma Education. Yet last year, as reported by numerous news agencies around the State, the Oklahoma Legislator illegally supplemented educational funding with millions of dollars from this trust fund. (For more information – See NewsOK’s article from March 16, 2017 titled “Lottery Money Found To Be Illegally Supplanting Education Funding For The First Time In Oklahoma” http://newsok.com/article/5542026)
Transparency by the Oklahoma Legislature is needed. Perhaps now it is a necessity even more than ever. Tom Coburn not only agrees with this, he wants to make this a reality.
‘“We need a constitutional convention to reform our constitution to make us a viable, thriving state,” Coburn says. The state needs a more powerful constitutional role for the governor’s office, he adds, and “transparency about how we spend our money.”
“How about the citizens of Oklahoma being able to see [how state funds are spent]?” Coburn asks. Indeed, Fallin vetoed a bill that would have published how the state spends its money. “How dare her,” Coburn says. “We do that on the federal level — you can go to openthebooks.com and find out everything. But in the state, we can’t know how we spend our money.”’
This, then, is the root issue for Oklahoma.
The State needs to be transparent about exactly what it is spending its millions of dollars it receives from Tribal Gaming on currently before any attempt to look back and imply that Oklahoma’s Native Nations and Tribal Gaming isn’t paying its fair share.
Tribal Gaming is not the cause of the State of Oklahoma’s budget woes. It also cannot be the solution.