Older Voters Criticize State Spending, But Candidates Face A Dilemma In Addressing The Issue

Martha Buehring, a 71-year-old Republican and former military wife, is one of many older Oklahomans who are frustrated with the state budget. (Caroline Halter / KGOU)

People over 65 are the most likely to vote. They’re also the group that’s most likely to point to government issues — like mismanaged taxpayer money — as their biggest political concern, according to a poll commissioned by Oklahoma public radio stations.

Martha Buehring, a 71-year-old Republican and former military wife, is one of many older Oklahomans who are frustrated with the state budget.

I just am very dissettled with our state government,” Buehring said, sitting beside tables crowded with tubes of paint and unfinished ceramics in the basement of the Norman Senior Citizens Center.

“I know the state, like every state in the union, is going bankrupt, you know. They’re close. We’ve had a bunch of spending people that have just spent us crazy,” she said.

Republicans aren’t alone in their concern about government spending. Upstairs, 72-year-old Janice VanSchuyver and her husband David are playing cards with two friends — they’re all Democrats.

As the next round is being dealt, VanSchuyver expresses her frustration with state spending.

“Well, I just don’t think we spend our money wisely,” VanSchuyver said. “I think we need to fund our schools more….David, what do you think about the politics?”

“How much money does it cost on these special sessions? “ asked David VanSchuyver. “For no good at all.”

What constitutes wasteful spending differs from person to person. Buehring, for her part, thinks a third special session to write new medical marijuana rules after voters approved State Question 788 would have been a wise use of state funding.

“To me, that overrides the teachers. I understand the teachers needed a raise and I have no problem with that. Find it somewhere. Period,” Buehring said. “Just find it somewhere. You can do that and let’s work on this.”

Losing by the numbers

And while government mismanagement is a recurrent theme in Oklahoma politics regardless of party, it seems especially pronounced amongst Republicans. Several of the 10 Republican candidates for governor addressed it when asked if they would have supported the tax increases passed in March during a forum sponsored by The Oklahoman in April.

“Giving more money to a government like this,  is like giving more money to an addict,” said Dan Fisher.

“Raising taxes, in my opinion, simply helps cover up what’s going on in the agencies,” answered Gary Richardson.

“We’ve got to figure out where our dollars are going,” remarked Kevin Stitt.

But, as State Auditor and Inspector Gary Jones, who campaigned for the GOP’s nomination in the governor’s race learned, focusing on the specifics of the state budget can lose voters.  

The Oklahoman said that I was the guy that was the best on the issues as far as the budget,” noted Jones during an interview with Oklahoma Engaged.

The paper also reported Jones got too “in the weeds” and that his answers didn’t make for good sound bites. Here’s Jones’ during that same forum responding to the same question:

“If you look back in the last 20 years we’ve lowered the income tax from 7 percent to 5 percent. Every quarter cent reduction is $160 million. Eight quarters is $1.28 billion. We lowered the gross production tax for the first three years from 7 to 2, because politicians got behind closed doors with their major donors and gave them a sweetheart deal. When I watched Step Up fail, and I watched the legislature were passing raises for teachers and not funding it and watching the crisis that we’re facing… it’s like seeing the train coming and doing nothing about it.”

Jones said he knew his detailed and pragmatic answers weren’t resonating with voters.

“It’s amazing to me how people get lost so quickly when you start talking numbers,” Jones said. “I joked, I said, I’m real good with numbers. It’s the words that get me.”

Jones favored spending cuts but steered clear of criticizing state agencies. He suggested eliminating the office of lieutenant governor and creating a unicameral state legislature, rather than across-the-board spending cuts. And he stood by the tax increases lawmakers passed in March.

“It was a matter of telling people the truth, not telling them what they want to hear,” Jones said. “I’m the first one to tell you that we can do things more efficiently in government, but not to the level people are talking about.”

In the end, despite significant name recognition and a detailed budget plan on his campaign website, Jones got just under 6 percent of the primary vote.

Like most Republicans, Martha Buehring didn’t vote for Gary Jones. She was a Todd Lamb supporter. She says for Mick Cornett or Kevin Stitt to win her vote in the August 28 runoff, they’ll need to give her more details about how they plan to manage taxpayer dollars.

As she returned to her ceramics projects, Buehring had this to say:  “Tell me what your plan is for this state. Both of them.”