By Rep. Mike Sanders
Budget negotiations lasted longer than in past years, but the result was that we were able to come up with a fix to the shortfall that did not include cuts to schools. As a budget subcommittee chair, it was my task in particular to fight for transportation funding in the budget. I was able to talk negotiators down from one plan that would have severely reduced the County Improvements for Roads and Bridges fund, but I still was unsatisfied with the changes made to the CIRB fund.
One of the wins on transportation funding was convincing my colleagues to avoid touching the gross production taxes that go to both schools and roads. We also got them to reduce the amount they intended to impact the CIRB fund. However, I promised county commissioners that I would not agree to fund state government on the back of our transportation funding. I voted “no” on the budget out of principle along with numerous Republican colleagues. Despite a large majority of Republicans in the House, only 54 members came out in support of the budget. Opposition even included the House’s second-in-command. Another budget item I took issue with was an approximately $400,000 reduction to conservation district funding.
Before the growing shortfall, most lawmakers had planned to address teacher pay this year. My sister is a teacher and I understand the need for us to keep pay competitive. I know our schools could use additional resources, but we had to work very hard just to spare K-12 the kind of cuts received in 2008. We did provide funding for ad valorem reimbursements, including $28 million in supplemental appropriations for the current budget year. I do plan to revisit teacher pay in the future.
The Oklahoma Health Care Authority received an $18 million increase while the state health department received a flat budget. The court-mandated Pinnacle Plan for the Oklahoma Department of Human Services received a scheduled $15.9 million increase. The Oklahoma Department of Corrections received a $14 million increase. I have told you before about the state of the prison system. It is bare-boned when it comes to staffing as it is. The system cannot afford to take cuts and instead needs regular increases just to keep up with our growing prison population. We also provided the second half of a raise for Oklahoma Highway Patrol troopers, at a cost of $4.6 million. I was very proud to have pushed for and received a flat Rural Economic Action Plan budget.
A total of 49 agencies received cuts, spread out in a way to lessen the pain of any one agency. This is an example of focusing on core services while allowing reductions to occur to many non-essential spending items. We plugged up the budget shortfall with $125.2 million worth of agency revolving funds, $150 million from the “rainy day” fund and several other accounts.
Now that we have completed the budget, I will begin to focus these columns on reviewing session highlights and give you an overview of what happened this year.