Citing erroneous government employment statistics compiled and reported by the Office of State Finance over the last seven years, a State Senator is urging OSF to recheck all of the other reports it has distributed to reporting authorities, the media and other entities during the Keating administration.
"For all we know, this mistake may not be the only one the Governor's budget agency has made over the last seven years. It could be just the tip of the iceberg. That's why it's critical that OSF go back, recheck all of the reports it has done over the last seven years and set the record straight," said Senator Larry Dickerson, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on General Government and Transportation - the legislative budget panel that oversees OSF.
It was discovered last week that OSF, the Governor's budget agency, reported inflated government employment numbers to the U.S. Census Bureau - the federal agency that is the clearinghouse for a variety of state statistics. OSF's reports missed the mark by some 6,000 employees. The erroneous reports apparently began when Governor Keating took office in 1995 and continued annually until this year when a state employees association discovered the mistake.
An OSF spokesman said they didn't notice the error themselves because the data was sent to the Census Bureau electronically and was never checked.
That explanation is disturbing, according to Senator Dickerson.
"It's embarrassing enough to make the same mistake for seven years, but it's even more embarrassing to admit that you never noticed the mistake because you didn't check your work. That certainly raises questions about the accuracy of all the other work OSF does," said the Poteau legislator.
In addition to providing government employment data to federal authorities, OSF acts as a budget adviser to the Governor, compiling data and reports on a variety of state issues. During the Keating administration, OSF has released a series of reports on per capita income, education spending, taxation levels, cost of living, welfare spending and government
employment. Governor Keating has used many of those reports to support his legislative agenda, even using the flawed employment data to argue for the privatization of state services and program cuts.
"I think skeptics could accuse the Governor of cooking the books to support his political agenda, but we won't really know that until OSF rechecks all of its reports. It's important for us to determine how widespread the errors are so we can correct them. It probably won't restore the credibility OSF has lost over this incident, but it is a good start," said Senator Dickerson.
The reporting mistakes may be more than just a blow to the credibility of OSF and Governor Keating, the legislator pointed out. Many economic development prospects rely on Census employment data and other information produced by OSF to make decisions about business relocations. By providing inaccurate material to them, OSF may have inadvertently discouraged new investment and new jobs for Oklahoma.
"I'd hate to think that this mistake cost us new jobs, but that's certainly a possibility. The more mistakes we discover in their work, the more likely that scenario is," said Senator Dickerson.
The lawmaker wants OSF to conduct a full, public accounting of the many reports and analyses is has conducted and disseminated over the past seven years. In an effort to restore credibility to the budget agency, the review must be done quickly and publicly to ensure that the same errors aren't repeated. Senator Dickerson said it might be necessary to use the State Auditor and Inspector or an outside accounting firm to ensure accuracy.
"If OSF doesn't think it's up to the task or isn't willing to undertake it in public, we can provide them some help. Just claiming that they've rechecked their work and discovered no further errors isn't going to be enough to restore credibility to the agency. We need someone looking over their shoulder so they don't make the same mistakes again," said Senator Dickerson.
Until the review is completed and the questions of additional errors are addressed, lawmakers will think twice about trusting any OSF data or assigning any additional duties to the agency, according to Senator Dickerson. For example, he noted that OSF is seeking additional funding this year so that it can review the budgets of local school districts and advise them on cost-saving measures.
"Given the latest mistakes, I can't think of too many people who would trust OSF with that kind of work. I think they need to clean up their own house before they start offering house-cleaning advice to others," said Senator Dickerson.
"If they think being off by 6,000 employees is just a minor error, I'd hate to see the creative math they employ on the golf course."