This week is crucial for budget issues, education bills (Capitol Update)

With only four weeks left in this year’s Legislative session, the feud between the House, Senate, and governor over education funding — including tax credits for parents sending their children to private schools — still dominates and is yet to be resolved. It was clear before the session began that a debate about education funding, public funding for private schools (call it vouchers or something else), and tax cuts would be on this year’s agenda. 

With about $1.2 billion in recurring revenue available to appropriate, no doubt public education should expect a good year. And with money stashed in various “savings” accounts over the past four years rather than appropriated for state operations, it was equally obvious that tax cuts would be pushed this year. It seems clear the “savings” were intended by some to be the basis for justifying tax cuts later.     

That said, I think few would have predicted the issues to play out the way they have so far. Speaker Charles McCall, who last year stood against private school vouchers, started the hostilities the second week of session. He lobbed a hand grenade at the Senate with an $800 million education proposal with the challenge that it couldn’t be amended by the Senate. Entirely predictable, including I’m sure by the speaker who is not attending his first rodeo, the Senate promptly amended the proposal and sent it back to the House. 

The governor entered the fray with a plan similar to the House proposal, which the House quickly passed and sent to the Senate. The Senate, last Thursday on deadline day for passage of House measures, jettisoned its lengthy agenda of House bills that had been working their way through the process since February and replaced it with passing and sending a modified Senate education proposal to the House. 

The governor now says he will sign the new Senate proposal if the House passes it. The second Senate proposal attempts to accommodate the House’s desire to send more money to rural schools by increasing the “isolation factor,” a provision in the state-aid formula that helps rural schools account for the added expense of smaller class sizes and increased transportation costs. 

No doubt every House member will be asking for computer printouts to see what the Senate modified plan does for the schools in their district. You can likely measure how near we are to a resolution of the session-long dispute by how much flexibility the Speaker is given by his rural members to deviate from the original House proposal. It seems the Senate has gone about as far as it is willing to go — allowing for small but meaningful tweaks to get to a deal. 

It’s also likely the tax cut discussion may merge with the education talks as part of the give and take. If the parties are as far apart on tax cuts as they are on education, there’s always the possibility of no deal, or just a limited agreement of some kind. In the meantime, there has been quite a bit of collateral damage in the form of good House and Senate legislation left on the cutting room floor and a multitude of other appropriation and budget issues awaiting the outcome of the education fight. Appropriators have been waiting to see how much of the pie will be left. Education is not the only budget issue that deserves attention. This week is crucial.


Steve Lewis served as Speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives from 1989-1990. He currently practices law in Tulsa and represents clients at the Capitol.

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