Oklahoma Republicans could be forcing as many as 21,000 elderly and disabled people into homelessness with their latest budget cuts, ostensibly designed to address the state’s long-running budgetary shortfalls which total over $800 million.
Budgets for numerous programs in Oklahoma have been mercilessly slashed by Republicans, including those administered by the Oklahoma Department of Human Services (DHS) which lost $69 million in funding.
In response to the budget cuts, DHS was forced to present a revised budget that completely eliminates the “Advantage Waiver Program” (AWP), which services 21,147 people in Oklahoma. The AWP allows those who are elderly or disabled, but still capable of caring for themselves with slight assistance, to stay in their own homes rather than being forced to live in nursing homes. The AWP’s elimination accounts for over 50% of the budgetary loss for DHS.
The Oklahoma legislature passed emergency legislation on Oct. 30, 2017, to allocate $100 million from the state’s constitutionally mandated “Rainy Day Fund”, which was already nearly depleted. DHS is slated to receive about $29 million in emergency funding, but none of that money will be used to maintain the AWP. The “Rainy Day Fund” is but a band-aid on a mortal wound which will only temporarily allow vital services to continue before the fund itself goes broke too.
The next day following the emergency legislative session, letters were sent to all AWP recipients, stating the AWP will no longer provide funding after Nov. 30, 2017:
The impact of terminating the AWP means those who counted on the subsidy will no longer be able to pay their bills and therefore will be forced from their homes. The DHS has acknowledged Oklahoma does not have enough beds in the state’s nursing homes to accommodate the inevitable influx of AWP recipients seeking a new home in which to live.
Tragically, the crisis is not limited to the 21,147 elderly and disabled individuals who are being ruthlessly forced from their homes with only a month’s notice. The scenario, unbelievable as it may seem, grows worse. A spokesman for DHS, Jeff Wagner, said:
“The agency will send additional letters to participants by Nov. 20 to tell them whether they are eligible for regular Medicaid benefits. If they are, they likely qualify for nursing-home care.”
Wagner’s statement shows AWP recipients will, in reality, have less than 10 days to know if they will be able to secure funding to pay for housing. And if former AWP recipients are ineligible for Medicaid? Well, that’s just how the cookie crumbles and Republicans are uninterested who falls through the cracks and ends up on the street.
That is to say nothing about the cost of housing the AWP’s former recipients in nursing homes, as it will be more expensive to accomplish than it would have been through the AWP. Nor have Republicans addressed the problems of nursing home rates increasing due to the extra demand, which will only further shoot the long-term costs of this faux money saving scheme upward.
Republicans seek to blame the budget cuts on the Oklahoma Supreme Court who struck down a $1.50 cigarette tax increase on Aug. 10, 2017. As the excuse goes due to that ruling, which eliminated a potential $250 million in new revenue, budget cuts must be enacted. This logic is dually bizarre and draconian as the elderly and disabled should not be relying on cigarette smokers as a last line of defense to protect them from homelessness.
The spurious cigarette story told by Republicans in an attempt to deflect the blame does not line up with the reality of Oklahoma’s tax history. The lack of revenue to pay for essential programs is a direct result of Oklahoma Republicans’ disgusting 2013 tax cuts for oil and gas production, which is Oklahoma’s largest industry. Republicans voted overwhelmingly to reduce the industry’s tax rate from 7% to 2% which was worth $450 million in 2015 alone. These cuts were supposed to spur economic growth, but it has instead led to economic disasters statewide as tax revenue has fallen at least 20% short of Oklahoma’s budgetary needs for three years in a row. Oklahoma’s top income tax rate is a mere 5%, cut from a previous rate of 6.65% which costs the state over $1 billion in revenue a year.
There is so little money available in Oklahoma’s budget due to obscene tax cuts the state is allowing drunk drivers to continue driving. Oklahoma does not have enough workers at the Department of Public Safety to hold hearings to revoke the licenses of drunk drivers. The wait for a hearing is an average of 13-months, meaning those caught drunk driving can legally stay on the road over a year. Behold the reality of trickle-down economics in all of its glory.
Tax increases in Oklahoma are tricky to enact thanks to a 1992 change to the state’s constitution known as “State Question 640.” The embarrassingly moronic law stipulates there can be no tax increases passed by state government unless the increase is voted on by popular election or if the increase is approved by 75% of both the Oklahoma House of Representatives and Senate. Finding such high margins of agreement for tax increases seems all but impossible given the nation’s political climate, but one must consider the Oklahoma legislature’s history and current legislative makeup.
Oklahoma became the 47th state in the Union on November 16, 1907. Democrats held majorities in both the Oklahoma House of Representatives and Senate from 1907 through 1917. Power was then shared between the two parties for six years until 1923 when Democrats won majorities and held both chambers for 86 consecutive years until 2009. In 2009, Republicans gained control of both chambers for the first time in Oklahoma’s 110-year history and have maintained their death grip ever since. The results, as evidenced above, have been nothing less than a complete disaster.
However, Oklahoma Republicans do have an opportunity to redeem themselves for their years of callous recklessness. The Oklahoma Senate is comprised of 48 seats and the Oklahoma House of Representatives is comprised up of 101 seats. Currently, Republicans have 40 Senate seats and 72 House seats, for 83% and 71% control with respect to each chamber. Republican legislators could easily find four Democratic colleagues in the House to help them fix the problem they irresponsibly created in 2013 while adhering to State Question 640. Will such a scenario ever transpire? One should not hold their breath in anticipation.
Rather than raise taxes to correct the shortfall Republicans prefer to take a dull ax to Oklahoma’s budget. Why would Republicans admit a mistake when destroying the already difficult lives of indigent people, who have no way to fight back, is far more expedient for their sinister interests? In doing so the corporate masters of Republicans will continue padding their already bloated bank accounts. From the Republican perspective, and to their everlasting shame, the budget cuts are win-win for all involved.