Some public schools are starting summer vacation several days early. Others are contemplating a four-day week to cut costs. And more than 200 teachers in Oklahoma City were handed pink slips in March. But instead of addressing a burgeoning budget crisis that threatens public education and other critical state services, Oklahoma lawmakers have been busy debating proposals to criminalize abortion, police students' access to public bathrooms and impeach President Obama.
The pattern is a familiar one: voters in red states put conservative Republicans in complete control of state government; GOP lawmakers implement their agenda; and the results are discouraging for everyone. We saw it in Louisiana, where former Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) failed, and we're seeing in Kansas, where Gov. Sam Brownback's (R) radical experiment is a fiasco.
The Washington Post reported yesterday, meanwhile, that a similar dynamic is unfolding in Oklahoma -- a state where President Obama lost literally every county, twice.
In theory, Oklahoma's GOP-led state government should be focused on the state's $1.3 billion budget shortfall, the result of tax breaks and reduced oil revenue. But much of the focus has been on the culture war, not the state's financial mess.
During a recent debate in the state House over an obviously unconstitutional anti-abortion proposal -- which was later vetoed -- state Rep. David Brumbaugh (R) told his colleagues, "Everybody talks about [Oklahoma's] $1.3 billion deficit. If we take care of the morality, God will take care of the economy."
Wishful thinking about divine intervention hasn't worked out in Oklahoma's favor.
State Sen. David Holt (R) told the Post he's "ashamed" of how much time his colleagues invested in a bill related to transgender restroom use. "[W]hile students in my district were quite literally marching in the streets to the Capitol to plead with the legislature to do something about how the budget shortfall will affect their schools," he said, "we were addressing something that virtually no one had contacted me about and that was arguably not a pressing issue."
Former Gov. David Walters (D), who served in the early 1990s, added, "You don't do all this craziness by accident. I think they're literally trying to create a smokescreen to cover what has to be one of the most irresponsible government periods in state history."
That's not quite what "literally" means, but Walters' broader point is well taken. The more Oklahoma policymakers need to focus on real, pressing issues, the more state Republicans turn their attention to hot-button social issues that rile up the party's base, neglecting actual state needs.
And what about the fate of Medicaid expansion, which appeared to be on track in Oklahoma two weeks ago? It was apparently shelved this week, right around the time state lawmakers turned their attention to a resolution endorsing impeachment for President Obama over an order related to bathroom access.