By Rep. Mike Sanders
This session, I have spent a great deal of time fighting to ensure we did not balance our budget by cutting road and bridge funding. Now, a budget agreement has been reached and I am proud to say that eight-year road plan will remain intact in addition to other core services.
The $6.78 billion budget, which is only the portion of state spending under direct legislative control, shields public schools, the prison system, the eight-year road plan and health care from further cuts during this oil and gas downturn.
The agreement closed just under $1 billion of the $1.3 billion shortfall we faced at the beginning of session. The upcoming budget is 5 percent smaller than the current year budget, before the midyear cut took place, or 1 percent smaller than the current budget after the midyear cut.
We combined a $200 million transportation bond, $144.4 million from the “rainy day” fund and many other strategies with the $5.85 billion in certified revenue to reach the $6.78 billion figure. For example, we passed legislation this year that will make the Cash Flow Reserve Fund part of certified revenue, which resulted in $132 million. We also reduced the time period by which certain entities can apply for tax refunds from three years to two years. With a shorter window, it is estimated we will have fewer refund applications and save approximately $9.1 million.
Those efforts led to us sparing core services from cuts. In particular, we avoided the Oklahoma Health Care Authority’s projection that they would have to cut provider rates by 25 percent, which would have closed nursing homes and hospitals throughout rural Oklahoma. This is a big win for Western Oklahoma.
The agreement maintains existing funding at the Department of Corrections by annualizing the department’s current year funding and making no further changes. It also protects critical safety net programs by providing a $16.3 million, or 2.6 percent, appropriation increase to the Department of Human Services that fully funds the Pinnacle Plan and helps maintain other important services.
The Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services received a $6.9 million increase to offset reductions caused by the midyear revenue failure.
One of the deeper cuts went to higher education. As I pointed out in a previous column, while we value higher education, there is quite a bit of wasteful spending that goes on in our university system. Our intent is for them to tighten their belt without raising tuition or deviating from their core service.
If I was the only voice up here, the budget might look different. In particular, I disliked and voted against the elimination of the earned income tax credit and other tax increases. However, for being only one of 149 legislators, I am fortunate to have been a budget subcommittee chairman and had a larger opportunity than most to influence the final agreement.
All in all, this was a good budget under the circumstances. This was one of the toughest sessions in recent years. We kept our word on maintaining funding for core services and have made changes to our budgetary system that will help us in future years.
I want to thank the transportation department and our county commissioners for helping come up with this plan and a fix to the budget. Once again, our transportation partners have stepped up to save our state government.