State Rep. John Bennett (R-Sallisaw) visits with Debbie Knoke, Sequoyah Memorial Hospital administrator, after the Sallisaw Chamber of Commerce Legislative Breakfast on Friday. Knoke is concerned about funding for the hospital. In the background Shannon Vann visits with State Senator Mark Allen (R-Spiro) about the state’s finances. The legislators talked about the state’s money crisis at the meeting.
“It’s your fault,” Sequoyah County’s three state legislators were told at the annual Legislative Breakfast, sponsored by the Sallisaw Chamber of Commerce, Friday morning.
The legislators – State Rep. Ed Cannaday (D-Porum), State Rep. John Bennett (R-Sallisaw) and State Senator Allen (R-Spiro) were to report on legislation at the state capital, but several of those attending challenged the legislators to do better, especially about funding for education and rural hospitals.
“It’s your fault,” Sallisaw School Superintendent Scott Farmer challenged the legislators about the decline in school funding. So far school districts have lost 7 percent of last year’s funding and more cuts are expected.
While the legislators lay blame for the state’s financial crisis on earlier legislation, some as early as in the 1960s, Farmer laid the blame on the present.
“You were to put, by state law, a budget in my hands by April 1. So far I haven’t seen one,” Farmer said. Farmer said schools are having to decide how to deal with funding cuts to their own programs. That is hard to do without a budget.
He challenged the legislators to “Find some solutions” regarding the decreases in school funding.
Bennett said the State Department of Education figures showed that school funding per student had increased. He also said that many of the new students swelling school populations were from the families of illegal immigrants.
Farmer said the point wasn’t illegal immigration. He said his job was to "educate the students."
About school funding per child, he said Bennett’s figures were wrong.
“The money per student has been declining since 2008,” Farmer said. “I invite anyone, from this moment, to come to my office and look at the numbers.”
Bennett told Farmer the State Department of Education is a bureaucracy which he wished could be done away with.
“I wish we could just send the money straight to you and have you decide how to spend it,” Bennett told Farmer. “That is the way it should be.”
Debbie Knoke, administrator at Sequoyah Memorial Hospital in Sallisaw, said she had a plea to present to the legislators.
Confirming that rural hospitals are also in a financial crisis, Knoke said Sequoyah Memorial Hospital’s funding is between 78 and 80 percent from Medicaid and Medicare. She said the hospital has already had a 10.75 percent cut in Medicaid funding, and could not survive a 25 percent Medicaid funding cut, as has been proposed.
Bennett told the group earlier that cut would not be implemented.
Knoke reminded the legislators of the importance of the hospital and its 176 employees to the community.
In his report to the group, Bennett said, “We are broke. The state is broke. We’ve got a budget shortfall, and we’ve got to make a lot of changes.”
Bennett said state legislators, to avoid having the state go into debt like the federal government, required the state live within its budget.
“You’ve got to make cuts and live within your means,” Bennett said.
He said doing away with the required End of Instruction (EOI) testing at the high schools “would save millions of dollars.”
Bennett also reported the state legislature has passed or is working on passing good gun bills, pro-life bills, bills that aid veterans and funding for education and the State Department of Corrections.
Senator Mark Allen told the group that not much has happened in the legislature so far this year. He said the legislature will focus on the budget and everything will revolve around common education.
He said partisan politics sometimes got in the way of legislation and recent attempts to cut tax credits were stymied by Democrats.
“Hopefully, if we find the money, we will hold common education even,” he said. Noting that schools recently received a funding boost from the state’s Rainy Day Fund, Allen said, “We need another back-up system.”
Representative Ed Cannaday questioned state tax credits for the rich at the cost of the poor.
“I want to hear about the $4.4 million tax credit we give to the owners of the Oklahoma City Thunder. I want to hear about the $29 million we are sending to companies out of state. We need to address these issues,” Cannaday said.
Cannaday said he has been told that much of state legislation will be discussed after the filing, which concludes on April 15, for the candidates for public office. But he argued, “The legislature should be held accountable.”
A retired educator himself, Cannaday said, “I feel good about what we are doing on assessing teacher performance. We need to give it to the schools.”
About student testing he said the state tests do not promote further education. “We need something (in testing) that advances to the next step,” such as for college or other advanced education. “The testing doesn’t connect right now,” he said.
Sally Maxwell, Senior News Director
For more news stories stay tuned to The MIX 105.1 or visit www.kxmx.com