By Rep. Mike Sanders
While a budget that protected core services and the eight-year road and bridge plan was our most critical accomplishment this year, the Oklahoma Legislature made policy changes that were intended to have greater long-term effects on our fiscal health.
Although many constituents were worried about the upcoming budget, the midyear revenue failure had a more immediate and painful effect. Although we had “rainy day” money set aside to help decrease that midyear cut, there were also limits on how much we could responsibly take when we could face future years with a revenue shortfall. Basically, it was clear that we needed to store more away for such difficult years.
For that reason, we enacted House Bill 2763 this year. The new law creates the Revenue Stabilization Fund, which is tied more directly to volatile revenue streams such as the gross production taxes on oil and gas and corporate income tax. Under the law, the state will save any revenue above a five-year average calculation to save for the years when we fall below that average. We will be able to use a quarter of the money in that fund to address a revenue failure and potential midyear cut or half to fill a budget shortfall for an upcoming year. The Rainy Day Fund works similarly, with rules about how money can be pulled out of it, which ensures it is used for its intended purpose.
A bad budget idea that showed up in the last week of session was to consolidate or dismantle the Council on Firefighter Training, which identifies the training needs for firefighters in Oklahoma, both volunteer and career. This organization has a huge positive impact on fire departments across Oklahoma through its efforts on training, health and safety. The plan was to move them under the state fire marshal, but without any funding to support their function. Fortunately, we were able to successfully defeat this idea.
Long-term health care funding was another issue that we worked on this year. While we do not think it is prudent to accept additional federal monies, we know that we must have a conservative approach to ensuring health care access in our rural communities. We enacted House Bill 2549 and Senate Bill 1149 to stabilize the funding and management of nursing homes and municipal hospitals. We also approved House Bill 2547, which removes a telemedicine requirement to ensure it can be more broadly used and therefore help to reduce some of the operating costs of the health care industry in rural areas.
Finally, there’s a false claim being made that we increased legislative pay or our operating budget. We decreased the Oklahoma House of Representatives by 25 percent. This reduction reflected the fact that we are moving constitutionally-mandated salaries and benefits to the Oklahoma Legislative Service Bureau. Legislative salaries are set by a nonpartisan commission. We do not set our own salaries and the commission has not approved a raise since the 1990s, nor do they plan to do so in the near future. With 101 legislators, the fixed salaries and costs of our chamber were a larger percentage than in most agencies. Moving those costs out of the House allows us to better manage and reduce operating costs in the future.