Oklahoma's broken budget

Amber England is the executive director for Oklahoma’s chapter of Stand for Children, a national advocacy organization that seeks a quality public education for all students.

Amber England, broken budget
Amber England (Provided)

Stand for Children is a partner in the Save Our State coalition, which is launching a series of community conversations each Tuesday in October to discuss Oklahoma’s “broken budget” at the local level.

In this funded content Q&A, England answers questions about Oklahoma’s legislative dysfunction, the Save Our State coalition and how rural residents can be involved in the political process.

Answers have been edited lightly for grammar and style.

With special session starting today, what does the Save Our State coalition want lawmakers to do? Is going back and passing the cigarette tax properly enough, or do Oklahomans need more out of this unusual fall legislative session?

We want lawmakers to do their jobs and fix the broken budget. That means finding the revenue necessary to end the vicious cycle of using tricks and gimmicks to plug the budget hole. And ending unnecessary and overly generous tax breaks for entrenched special interests.

Passing a cigarette tax alone won’t fix our broken budget, and every lawmaker knows that. It will be interesting to see if lawmakers have heard the message voters have been sending at the ballot box all summer long, or if they will continue to just kick the can down the road and ignore the crisis in front of them.

Save Our State is hosting a string of town halls called “Blueprint for a Better Budget” each Tuesday in October. These conversations will be in Lawton, Stillwater, Okmulgee and Durant. Are you trying to build momentum for the budget discussion outside of OKC and Tulsa?

Absolutely. People in rural Oklahoma are often left behind by the decisions being made in Oklahoma City. It’s time to take this fight to the very people whose lives are being turned upside down by budget cuts that have forced their schools to four-day weeks, closed their rural hospitals and robbed their children of quality teachers who are fleeing the state for better pay. And that’s exactly what we’re doing with the Blueprint for a Better Budget Community Conversations — making sure these folks’ voices are heard.

We’ll be hitting four different, mostly rural communities in October. And if things go well, we’ll hit four more in January, leading into the regular session. We’re excited to talk to real Oklahomans and hear how the broken budget has affected their lives and what that means for the communities they call home.

Just last week, the senior nutrition center where my 86-year-old grandfather eats lunch every day closed it’s doors. He’s a military veteran who served our country during the Korean War. The companionship from others that go there every day is almost as important to his well-being as the nutritious food he receives. I worry what will happen to him since that lifeline has been ripped from him and so many other seniors across our state.

Is it really too much to ask our legislators to make the tough decisions necessary to fix our broken budget? To make sure we are taking care of some of the most vulnerable among us?

You are the director of Oklahoma’s Stand for Children chapter and a native Oklahoman. Why is Stand For Children a part of the Save Our State coalition?

Stand for Children is an education advocacy organization whose mission is to ensure all children, no matter where they live, have access to strong public schools. Oklahoma’s broken budget makes that mission nearly impossible. We’ve passed more education reform than most any other state in the country over the last eight years, but our students still aren’t graduating prepared for college or a career. It’s time for Oklahoma to invest in our schools and teachers. And until we fix the budget, that investment simply will not come.

We’ve heard lawmakers promise teachers a pay raise, and we’ve heard the rhetoric about “holding education harmless.” Well, we’re tired of the empty promises. And many more Oklahomans are tired of it, too.

Being a part of a coalition that has come together specifically to address Oklahoma’s broken budget allows us to hold lawmakers accountable and bring a more broad grassroots presence to this important fight.

Lawmakers have been given the chance to pass a teacher pay raise this special session, but raising revenue to pay for it could be a hurdle. What message would it send for the Legislature to punt on a teacher raise yet again?

If lawmakers again break their promise to teachers, it sends the message that they care more about protecting powerful special interests than fixing Oklahoma’s budget so that they can pay for a much-needed teacher pay increase.

Oklahoma voters have been pretty clear on this issue. They want a solution, and they want it now.

Those powerful special interests — who funded the opposition to the state question on last year’s ballot that would have increased funding to schools and given every Oklahoma teacher a $5,000 pay raise — promised voters there was a better plan out there. It’s been almost a year, and we’ve yet to see that plan emerge. It’s time to deliver.

If you live in the Oklahoma City metro, dropping by the Capitol to meet with lawmakers and advocate for compromise can be fairly easy. But if you live in Tulsa or rural Oklahoma, that can be more difficult. How can folks across the state reach their legislators more effectively? What works best?

Honestly, I believe taking the time to meet with your lawmaker face-to-face outside of the Capitol building is best. The Capitol is like an alternate universe — it’s fast paced with a ton of distractions. If you can catch your lawmaker at the local high school football game or at the corner store, take the time to invite them for a cup of coffee and have a real conversation with them. Connect with them and tell them your personal story.

Most every person serving in the Legislature decided to run because they wanted to make life better for their constituents. Sometimes, in the pressure cooker of the state Capitol building, they can lose sight of that. Having a conversation with the folks back home is a great way for them to remember why they are serving and to whom they owe their loyalty.

Let’s say the Zombie Apocalypse is upon us and you must protect what’s left of civilization. You can choose any three state agencies to help you in this fight. Who do you choose and why?

I’m a person who believes government can be a force for good in people’s lives, so I’m not really interested in furthering any sort of narrative or rhetoric that certain state agencies aren’t mission critical. They all play an important role in ensuring Oklahoma is a place where people want to live, work and raise their family.

That being said, education is my passion, and I believe wholeheartedly if every Oklahoman had access to a quality education many of the problems of this state like poverty, drug-addiction, mass-incarceration, hunger and homelessness would cease to exist. Perhaps investing in education is indeed the way to make government the most efficient it can be — thus avoiding a Zombie Apocalypse altogether. 😉