KINGSTON, Okla. — Budget shortfalls at the Oklahoma State Capitol have led to in-depth discussions about the areas that will see potential cuts in the coming months.
Earlier this week, the Oklahoma Tourism and Recreation Department gave an idea of what a 14.5 percent cut could mean for state parks across the state. Among the results of a cut was the potential closing of 16 state parks across the state.
The hypothetical cut is part of a process legislative sub-committees are using across the board in order to get a real picture of the impact of cuts on agencies.
“It’s a reality check,” Rep. Pat Ownbey, R-Ardmore, said of the cuts. ‘We’re either going to see these happen or we’ll find another revenue source.”
Ownbey said inquiring about the realistic impact of cuts is an exercise of perspective for legislators. By determining the impact of a 14.5 percent cut across the board, legislators can associate real life scenarios with the numbers and how those cuts will affect agencies across the state.
“It’s beyond realism for some of these agencies,” Ownbey said, noting representatives have to understand the impact of decisions and look at the reality of a situation. “Otherwise, you’re looking at it from 30,000 feet.
“By far this is the most critical of all the budget issues we’ve faced,” he said of this year’s shortfall.
One of the 16 potential parks facing closings is Lake Texoma State Park. The lake serves as a primary tourism centerpiece for many neighboring communities, including Kingston and Madill.
“The exact economic impact is hard to know,” Terri Weir, executive director of the Lake Texoma Association, said. “How solid that decrease is hasn’t been determined yet.”
Lake Texoma’s situation, in many ways, is unique compared to other state parks. With outside parties, such as the Chickasaw Nation, currently investing in the area, the impact of the state funded portions of the park on the local economy are unclear. Weir said the state operates a campgrounds area at the lake, but many of the other facilities and developments in the area aren’t state funded.
“We’re talking about a part of the entire area,” Weir said. “It’s all relative.”
The closing of the park, if that situation were to happen, would eliminate several state jobs at the park, but the state’s second largest lake could potentially still be a popular spot for tourist and locals. Weir said without the other developments, and the potential for other funding sources to step in, the economic impact of a closing could be much more devastating.
The situation for other state parks may not be so unique. While tourism, Oklahoma’s third largest industry, is certainly part of the puzzle in a historically steep budget shortfall, the problem is rooted much deeper.
“If we’re not going to figure this out these are the real cuts we’ll be facing,” Ownbey said, saying cuts to every agency except common education are on the table.
Ownbey said within the next few weeks the legislators will begin to, hopefully, make the difficult decisions in determine solutions to the budget shortfall. While the current discussion is on the immediate strife, the decisions being made now will impact agencies and the state in the future.
“How much longer can we cut each year,” Ownbey said. “I truly believe we’ll have some good answers in the coming weeks. But we have some very difficult decisions to make.”