Oklahomans gather together on April 15, or tax day, to protest what they called the high taxes and excessive spending in Washington. This has led many lawmakers to pay attention to what most people consider to be the #1 issue: The Economy.
Sen. Johnnie Crutchfield, D-Ardmore, reads the current estimates in the Oklahoma budget. The state budget has direct ties to how much people will pay in taxes in Oklahoma. The state budget is in an estimated $900 million shortfall due mainly to low tax collections in oil and natural gas. And because lawmakers do not want to raise taxes, the only option is to cut agencies such as education and transportation.
Crutchfield says the Legislature may not be doing an adequate job for the people of Oklahoma, because the Republican leadership took longer than last year in attempting to craft the state's budget.
House Speaker Pro Tempore Kris Steele talks about House Bill 2026, a bill that would give people under the age of 40 "basic preventative" health care plans. He said this would improve the economy by allowing more people to purchase health care and save money. He said the state would have to pay about $260,000 for the program, but this would be covered by Obama's stimulus plan. HB 2026 was signed into law by the governor on May 6.
With One Week Left, Budget is Top Concern
With the 2009 legislative session scheduled to wrap up in only one week, lawmakers are turning most of their attention toward the biggest piece of unfinished business—the state budget.
Because Republicans have control of both the Senate and the House for the first time, they are in charge of the key negotiations on what cuts will be made in which programs to offset a big revenue shortfall next year.
This has left many Democrats feeling left out of the decision-making process, and some are accusing Republican leaders of failing to address the budget in a timely fashion and make sure all voices are heard.
Sen. Tom Ivester, D-Sayre, said those responsible for crafting the state’s budget waited too long to start the negotiations and will not have enough time to seek sufficient input from rank-and-file Senate and House members.
“We haven’t even started to do our biggest job,” Ivester said. “That’s why I don’t believe we’ve earned our paychecks.”
The state budget is expected to shrink from $7.1 billion this year to about $6.5 billion next year because of the slowing economy and falling energy prices, according to a report released by the Oklahoma Office of the Treasury. Although the federal stimulus program will offset some of the revenue shortfall, the downturn will still require painful cuts in many state programs. Unlike the federal government and some states, Oklahoma is required by its Constitution to pass a balanced budget every year.
Because of the severity of the shortfall, Ivester said it was critically important to get as many people involved in the decision-making process as possible.
“There has been some talk among the leadership in the House and Senate, probably less than two or three people on each side,” he said. “I don’t think it’s a good idea to have six or seven people making all the decisions.”
The decisions to be made will affect nearly all Oklahomans, Ivester said. And education may be one of the most affected because of the short amount of time to draft the budget. This short time may tempt lawmakers to make across-the-board cuts, leaving education to be one of the largest cut because it comprises over half of the state's total budget, according to the governor's 2010 budget he issued at the beginning of the year.
Although lawmakers have taken heat for being slow on the budget, the process of crafting it was complicated this year by uncertainty about the size and scope of the big economic stimulus plan drafted by the Obama administration and approved in modified form by Congress.
Oklahoma lawmakers and other state officials did not know most of the rules regarding how the stimulus money could be allocated until early April, state Treasurer Scott Meacham said.
Sen. Johnnie Crutchfield, D-Ardmore and former chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said uncertainty over the stimulus plan was not a good excuse for postponing talks about the state budget.
“When I was chairman, we started several weeks earlier than we have this time,” Crutchfield said. “The stimulus money was something we didn’t anticipate, but it had no bearing on when we should’ve started talking about the budget.”
Crutchfield warned that the late start might force lawmakers to stay at the Capitol longer than anticipated. Although the Constitution requires the Legislature to adjourn the 2009 session by May 29, legislative leaders had hoped to finish a week earlier.
“If the federal guidelines aren’t established to the extent that we can know how we can use every bit of that money, then I think that brings us back in special session, but that has nothing to do with when the talks should’ve started,” he said.
Sen. Mike Johnson, R-Kingfisher and current chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said he and other leaders had made “tremendous progress” on the budget in recent weeks, and lawmakers won’t have to return in special session.
“We hope we can be done by the end of this week and present the governor with our budget,” Johnson said. “Then, negotiations will start between him and us as to what changes need to be made for him to agree to it.”
While next year’s revenue shortfall is expected to be about $900 million, Johnson said the federal stimulus package will provide substantial funds for key programs, including an estimated $472 million for education.
“If cuts are made in common and higher education, then the schools can apply for part of this money to get their funding back up, so they will be almost held harmless,” he said. “We started the year trying to make it a priority to lessen cuts to education, health, transportation and public safety. That’s still been a priority for us.”
Even so, Johnson said it was unlikely those programs would emerge unscathed.
“Almost every agency will have cuts,” he said.
Johnson acknowledged that some Democrats had not been included in the budget discussions so far. The initial conversations have been mainly among himself, House Appropriations and Budget Committee Chairman Rep. Ken Miller, R-Edmond, and Treasurer Meacham, the governor’s chief budget negotiator.
“You’ve talked to some that haven’t been part of the process,” Johnson said.
Ivester said that is the problem, and insisted the budget is too important to the people of Oklahoma to not include everyone in the deliberations.
“In the end, the budget runs our government,” he said. “If you care about having water, if you care about the fire truck that’s going to come if you have a fire or the policeman who is going to help you if you have a burglary, you should care about the budget.”