Everyday folks call, email and visiting lawmakers before end of legislative session. (Oklahoma Gazette)

May 4, 2016

 By Laura Eastes

Andy Moore was fed up with dreary headlines about the state’s financial mess. Articles covering the revenue shortfall and its impact on state agencies and school districts that are now facing massive budget cuts frustrated the Oklahoma City resident and father of two young children.

Like many, Moore logged on to Facebook to share his irritation with friends and family members; however, that action didn’t prompt any change. 

About a month ago, Moore jokingly suggested to friends they take a day off work to visit the state Capitol to talk with lawmakers about the $1.3 billion budget hole and funding issues regarding core government services.

His idea was met with enthusiasm, which surprised Moore, who never considered himself politically active but rather politically interested.

 A public Facebook page, Let’s Fix This: A Day at the Capitol for Regular Folks Who Care, was created with an event date set for April 27. The man who never attended a political rally had organized a nonpartisan, multi-issue day of advocacy at the Capitol.

“We all have a dog in this fight,” Moore said at the inaugural event. “We are all Oklahomans, and we all care.”

Moore’s movement centered on everyday folks from all walks of life who hold different political opinions coming to the Capitol and advocating for their passions. Moore has concerns about funding cuts to schools, mental health and roads but acknowledged others worried about health, human services and public safety. Wearing red “let’s fix this” buttons, citizens from across the state spoke with lawmakers and advocated for a better Oklahoma.

Together Oklahoma

Thousands of Oklahomans visit the “People’s House” annually; however, many visit for rallies on specific legislation, pressing issues or advocating for a single entity. 

Founded on the notion that “Oklahoma’s future depends on our essential public services — we need safe communities, a strong infrastructure and environment, and great schools to keep this state attractive to business and a great place to live” four years ago, Together Oklahoma brought a wave of citizen lobbyists to the Capitol.

Together Oklahoma is a coalition of citizens working to connect the state’s values to the state’s budget priorities. Oklahoma Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank, staffs and funds Together Oklahoma, which also encourages coalition members to call, write and visit with lawmakers.

During this session and in the wake of Oklahoma’s economic crisis, much of Together Oklahoma’s message centered on creating new revenues to close next year’s budget gap, said David Blatt, Oklahoma Policy Institute executive director.

“We appreciate the citizens that are getting involved, engaged and helping to put solutions out there,” Blatt said. “If lawmakers wouldn’t do the hard things — in particular roll back the tax cuts, tax breaks and increase taxes — if they aren’t willing to do that in this situation, the outcome will be really bad for the people of this state and a really bad outcome for elected officials.” 

Coalition members campaign on three suggestions: roll back the most recent income tax credit, end tax breaks and tax loop holes and enact selective tax increases. The group endorses increasing the cigarette tax rate by $1.50 per pack to support state health agencies. Additionally, raising fuel tax by five cents would bring $135 million into state coffers.

The proposed solutions aren’t unique to Together Oklahoma or Oklahoma Policy Institute. Republican lawmakers and the Oklahoma Hospital Association also spoke in favor of the cigarette tax proposition. In February, Gov. Mary Fallin called for an end to the personal income tax double deduction, which only benefits the state’s high earners who itemize deductions.

Efforts on budget solutions appear stalled to Blatt and Moore, which is why they push for citizen engagement.

It is a critical time for citizens to make their cases to lawmakers. Lawmakers must pass a state budget for the coming fiscal year before adjourning the regular session. The final day of session, called sine die, is May 27.

“Everyone agrees something needs to be done and new revenue is part of the solution, but [lawmakers] can’t agree on what the new revenue should be,” Blatt said. “They can’t come together. We really are seeing a leadership crisis.”

Social media

Blatt said Oklahoma Policy Institute and Together Oklahoma are witnessing record numbers in web traffic and social media interactions. He believes the spike is spurred by the state’s current financial woes.

“People are really freaked out about what’s happening,” Blatt said, “or what could happen if legislators don’t fix this.”

Together Oklahoma created the website dosomethingok.org and generated the social media hashtag #DoSomethingOK. Testimonials of funding cuts impacting everyday Oklahomans are published on the website.

A lawmaker locator and talking points also are accessible from the site. Putting the crisis in perspective is a variety of short, humorous videos.

The state’s budget crisis is a disheartening subject. Together Oklahoma staff strive not to discourage people with the facts they present. Rather, they encourage people who have concerns and frustrations to become part of the solution by writing legislators, visiting the Capitol and speaking with peers about the issues.

Social media also was the driving force in Moore’s Let’s Fix This campaign. He expected about a dozen people to join him. Instead, around 70 people participated in the inaugural event 

Moore connected with lawmakers through Facebook to explain the event and ask for their help. Could they share advice for approaching elected officials? Sen. Stephanie Bice, R-Oklahoma City; Rep. Jason Dunnington, D-Oklahoma City; Rep. Mark Lepak, R-Claremore; and Rep. Cyndi Munson, D-Oklahoma City, spoke during the April 27 meeting.

Citizen lobbyists

“One of the things I’ve learned over the past two and a half years is there are not enough people engaged,” Bice said as she addressed the crowd.

The state senator stressed that lawmakers are everyday folks who want to hear from constituents. Letters, emails, phone calls and visits aren’t unnoticed, Bice said. 

Six Let’s Fix This advocates visited Munson’s office. The freshman lawmaker said she found it encouraging that both Republicans and Democrats spoke of similar funding concerns during their visits.

“To have people share their everyday stories about how the budget impacts them, that is powerful for elected individuals,” Munson said. “We have to remember that we are making decisions on people’s lives.”

The Let’s Fix This movement continues through its presence on social media. There’s a good chance the group will soon be back at the Capitol. In the meantime, it continues advocating for a better Oklahoma.

“I’ve heard so many people say they haven’t been politically active, but by someone saying, ‘Hey, we are just regular folks,’ that was the piece that keyed them into getting involved,” Moore said.

Like Moore, Blatt believes there is still time for lawmakers to pursue new revenue streams for the coming year’s budget, which begins July 1, and not pass a budget with dire cuts to core services. However, lawmakers’ lack of action during the first 13 weeks of session paints an ominous picture.

“At this point, I don’t think anyone knows how this will end,” Blatt said. “I don’t think any of the scripts have a good ending. … We can’t fix all of our problems. Even if the price of oil doubled, there are still major budget challenges. There is no great ending. There is worse and there is catastrophic.” 

http://okgazette.com/2016/05/04/everyday-folks-call-email-and-visiting-lawmakers-before-end-of-legislative-session/