With three days left, lawmakers pushing budget through Oklahoma Capitol (News OK)

By Dale Denwalt

Gov. Mary Fallin said the budget agreement lawmakers are considering this week avoids the kind of significant cuts she warned about when threatening a veto earlier this year.

In a late-night session that spanned Tuesday night and Wednesday morning, House and Senate legislators introduced $6.82 billion in spending, which on paper is a slight increase from last year. However, a combination of mid-year spending cuts and Rainy Day Fund borrowing over the past 11 months means the two fiscal years will be within $2.5 million of each other.

The Oklahoma Senate approved Senate Bill 860 on Wednesday. It now awaits final House approval before heading to Fallin’s desk.

“This plan keeps our government from shutting down. It is not an ideal budget, but it avoids draconian cuts to our core services such as education, health and human services, and public safety. Unfortunately it leaves many agencies facing cuts for the sixth year in a row,” Fallin said.

When asked if she is asking lawmakers to adopt Senate Bill 860, she didn’t commit.

“I’m encouraging them to get a budget done,” Fallin said as she stood in the Capitol rotunda.

While it doesn’t include draconian cuts, she said the Legislature’s spending plan includes too much money that will only be available next year.

“I’ve asked for structural reforms to be made in our budget so we could put recurring revenue on the table, and not have so much one-time monies,” Fallin said.

The budget sends about $2.4 billion to the Department of Education. Legislative leaders originally said that the bill holds education harmless — or doesn’t reduce funding — but that doesn’t appear to be the case. If supplemental appropriations over the past year are included in the total, the Education Department would actually be getting about 2 percent less.

That’s not all.

David Blatt, executive director of the Oklahoma Policy Institute, said his initial analysis showed the appropriations bill cuts education’s state aid funding formula by more than $17 million. Blatt said the department needed millions more to cover increased health care costs and mandatory textbook purchases.

In an email to supporters, the Oklahoma State School Boards Association said the bill shifts funding obligations from the state government to local school districts.

“State law requires the state to pay for teacher health insurance,” the association noted. “However, this bill would force schools to absorb the increased cost of teacher health insurance next school year, at an estimated cost of about $20 million.”

In last-minute legislation, however, lawmakers introduced a bill sending an additional $18 million to schools to make up for the loss in funding formula cash.

State schools Superintendent Joy Hofmeister praised the Legislature for the extra money adopted in committee late Wednesday.

“Under the trailer bill, the Legislature will ensure that the funding formula is preserved and that the state fulfills its statutory obligation to cover 100 percent of the health insurance costs so vital for educators,” Hofmeister said.

Most agencies would receive a cut of at least 4 percent, but others are scheduled to get more money. The appropriation to the Rehabilitation Services Department is up 8.5 percent after automatic spending cuts triggered by a revenue failure.

Many of the one-time funds come from agency accounts. On paper, the Transportation Department’s appropriation increased by about $90,000 but another part of the appropriation bill pulls more than $53 million from the State Transportation Fund and makes it available for appropriation.

The State Transportation Fund is fed automatically from motor fuel taxes and goes toward the department’s operations and maintenance.

Two key fundraising measures that are part of the budget compromise survived their first floor votes Wednesday, despite warnings that courts could declare them unconstitutional.

“This bill is fatally flawed in substance and form,” warned Senate Minority Leader John Sparks, D-Norman.

Sparks was talking about Senate Bill 845, which would charge wholesalers a $1.50 smoking cessation fee on every pack of cigarettes. The bill now heads to the House.

The measure is projected to raise $257 million next fiscal year, but Sparks warned that the courts could overturn the new law, placing important state agencies in a financial lurch.

Democrats have challenged revenue bills in the closing days of session this week because state law bans revenue-raising measures in the last five days of session.

Because of that and other flaws, Sparks said, he voted against the bill even though he wants to discourage smoking by raising the cost.

Several Republicans spoke in favor of the measure, saying they believed raising the price of cigarettes to discourage smoking would improve the health of Oklahomans and ultimately save money.




Margaret (Maggie) den Harder obtained a Bachelor of Arts in Christian Theology from Seattle Pacific University and a Master of Public Administration from the University of Oklahoma. Originally from the Pacific Northwest area of Washington state, Maggie has called Tulsa home for the past 8 years. Since living in Tulsa, Maggie has worked in the legal field, higher education administration, and the nonprofit sector as well as actively volunteering in the community. Maggie also recently spent time at the City of Tulsa as a consultant and wrote the content for Resilient Tulsa, an action-oriented strategy designed to better equity in Tulsa. Through her work, community involvement, and personal experiences, Maggie is interested in the intersection of the law and mental health and addiction treatment issues, preventative and diversion programs, and maternal mental health, particularly post-partum depression and post-partum psychosis. While working at Oklahoma Policy Institute as a research intern, Maggie further developed an interest in family dynamics and stability, economic security-related stress, and intergenerational trauma.

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