OCPA’s Small: TSET Mission Creep

 
The Mission Creep
By OCPA President Jonathan Small
“In good times, I do think that it’s true that government is subject to ‘mission creep,’” my old boss Scott Meacham once sagely observed. “When the revenue is flowing maybe there’s a trend to drift into areas that are outside of the core mission or missions of government. What happens when things are going well is that things that are ‘nice to do’ become new programs.” With state government spending at an all-time high, I think of that quote often. Consider a recent report from The Oklahoman’s Brianna Bailey and Dale Denwalt. It turns out the Oklahoma State Department of Health has been shifting money around to fund programs it was never intended to fund. “Now officials say the state Health Department faces a $30 million funding shortfall this year,” Bailey and Denwalt report. “In August, the state Health Department was forced to end an $8.5 million program with the Oklahoma Tobacco Settlement Endowment Trust that funded grants for things like lighted walking trails at city parks and school playground equipment across the state, records show.” It’s not just the Health Department. The Tobacco Settlement Endowment Trust (TSET) is guilty of frivolous spending. TSET promotes smoke-free bars and nightclubs—including one that advertises to teenagers “15 and up”—and buys pricey billboard space in the metro areas for “water recipes.” Talk about a ‘mission creep.’ Sadly, this isn’t particularly surprising from a state agency with a billion-dollar endowment, $50 million in annual income from cigarette sales, $30 million-$40 million in earnings, and zero accountability to voters. To its credit, however, TSET recently did make some healthier fiscal choices by choosing to shift some spending back to its core mission of supporting the health of the most vulnerable Oklahomans. TSET’s board voted to provide funds for senior nutrition services at the Oklahoma Department of Human Services and mobile mental health crisis teams through the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services. That’s a trend that certainly needs to continue. I continue to recommend a vote of the people directing all future TSET payments to a rural health care infrastructure fund. The money could be used for reimbursement to rural areas that struggle with revenue stream diversity for their hospitals and have suffered actual dollar losses. It could also be used to fund the Physician Manpower Training Commission and shore up nursing home provider rates. That’s certainly more mission-critical than promoting bars or harassing folks to drink water.
 
Jonathan Small serves as president of the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs (www.ocpathink.org).