2017 Tulsa election: Proposition 7: Ineffective spending constraint

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The seventh of the seven charter change propositions on the City of Tulsa November 14, 2017, ballot would add language to the City Charter with the intent of preventing the money from the public safety tax approved in April 2016 to be spent on any other purpose.

Here are direct links to the current text of Tulsa City Charter, Article II, Section 7.1, City Council, Budgets and Tulsa City Charter, Article III, Section 1.4, Mayor, Executive and administrative powers and duties.

The mark-up below shows the how the text of Article II, Section 7.1, and Article III, Section 1.4, would change if Proposition No. 7 is approved, with added text underlined. No text would be removed by this proposition.

Section 7.1. - Budgets.

Prior to the expenditure of general funds, or funds from the sale or issuance of an obligation of the city, or from any other source, the Mayor shall submit to the Council a budget for the expenditure of such funds or amendments to previously adopted budgets. The Council shall adopt budgets or amendments and make appropriations by ordinance, provided, that no revenue derived from the 2017 Public Safety Sales Tax, as set forth in detail in Title 43‐I Tulsa Revised Ordinances, shall ever be budgeted, spent or used for any purpose other than public safety as described therein.

Section 1.4. - Executive and administrative powers and duties.

The Mayor shall be the chief executive and administrative officer of the city and shall:

...

C. Prepare and submit to the Council annually, on or before the first day of May, an operating budget, a capital program, and a capital budget; submit recommendations for amending adopted budgets, provided, that no revenue derived from the 2017 Public Safety Sales Tax, as set forth in detail in Title 43‐I Tulsa Revised Ordinances, shall ever be budgeted, spent or used for any purpose other than public safety as described therein;

While I appreciate the intention behind this, it should be obvious that the proposal won't accomplish what is desired. Making the meaning of language in the City Charter (which can only change with a vote of the people) depend on the language in an ordinance (which can be changed without a vote of the people) makes it easy to undermine the intent of the charter provision without getting public approval to remove it. The Council could vote to redefine public safety to include, say, park maintenance. While such a change would require following the Brown Ordinance process with public notice and public hearing, that wouldn't stop a determined council and mayor. The charter amendment wouldn't make it any harder to redirect or misdirect this money than it already is.

This proposed amendment also does not prevent the council and mayor from redirecting general fund money currently paying for police and fire protection to other purposes, effectively nullifying the intended benefit of approving the earmarked public safety tax. While Title 43-I declares that intent, there is no mandatory language that prohibits reducing general fund spending on police and fire from historic levels or penalizes elected officials who do so. They wouldn't even have to go through a Brown Ordinance process to adopt a budget that cuts general fund spending on public safety.

Finally, even if this amendment could accomplish its intended purpose, earmarking funds hinders flexibility to prioritize spending when revenue drops. Different "colors of money" -- funds from specific sources that can only be spent on specific agencies -- mean that some agencies are swimming in money while higher priority public purposes go unfunded. This is a significant contributor to our current state budget crisis, but it isn't getting the attention it should. Earmarked revenues set up a classic conflict between concentrated benefit and diffuse cost: An agency (and its employees, contractors, and clients) that benefits from this arrangement will zealously defend its earmark, but the cost (finding revenue elsewhere for other government purposes) is spread over too many agencies and taxpayers to incite sufficient support to overcome agency resistance. Politicians respond to this imbalance of passion by backing off of earmark reform -- less hassle to impose a little tax hike on everyone or cut a small amount from a wide swath of government than to deal with the sound and fury of taking dedicated funding from a specific program.

I'll be voting no on Proposition No. 7.

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This page contains a single entry by Michael Bates published on November 9, 2017 9:05 AM.

Kevin Calvey: "Tax Increases Just Cover Up Corruption" was the previous entry in this blog.

St. Gregory's University closing in December is the next entry in this blog.

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