By Patrick B. McGuigan
Speaker of the House Chris Benge told reporters Thursday he was reluctant to tackle illegal immigration issues anew this late in the 2010 legislative session. The Tulsa Republican also disputed notions his party has pressed politically-charged issues at the expense of budget deliberations.
At his regular weekly briefing, in response to a question from CapitolBeatOK, the Tulsa Republican said, “I want to discern the truth, the facts about what is actually coming out of Arizona. I would say that Oklahoma has already been a leader in addressing immigration.”
He continued, “I want to see how the Arizona legislation turns out before we do something new. I think it’s too early to address that question again at this time. Other states have actually been patterned after us and our earlier bill, so let’s have that work for awhile.”
In a separate interview, as reported in The Oklahoman, Senate President Pro Tem Glenn Coffee told reporters, “Arizona’s a border state and it’s more of a heightened issue there We’ve already passed some immigration measures. Doing it in a full session if somebody wants to bring it and go through the committee process makes sense.”
One reporter pointed out that “the building” (the state Capitol) had all week been flooded with advocates of keeping many government programs at current funding levels. On Thursday, advocates for mental health programs dominated the hallways and the rotunda area at the Capitol.
Benge and Coffee are still negotiating with Gov. Brad Henry over the means for gaining another few hundred million dollars in budget cuts, perhaps along with nips and tucks in business tax credits and incentives.
Concurring with the reporter’s description of mental health service recipients as “vulnerable,” Benge commented:
“The situation we’re in is really challenging and it’s serious. We have had shortfalls in hoped-for revenues the last two years in a row. We are in a recession that is global in nature. We are trying to be just as sensitive as possible toward the people who are absolutely the most vulnerable among us. It’s very difficult.”
CapitolBeatOK asked Benge about comments by Democratic leader-designate Scott Inman of Oklahoma City, who contended in comments to reporters that his party’s suggestions for dealing with budget concerns, tax credits and other issues had been ignored.
Benge reflected, “If they have a list they have not shared it with me. The figures they have pushed out in the last few days on tax credits and possible elimination of some of those have included a lot of things that I can’t believe they would actually want us to cut or reduce or eliminate. For example, the standard deduction for taxpayers, and senior citizen credits/exemptions. Some of these, I’d be very surprised if they’re actually for what was implied in this week’s releases.”
He later added, “A lot of their recommendations have been made through the press, through you [reporters], rather than in direct communications. I’ve noticed they’ve been very focused on the tax credits recently. But I’m not aware of anything on paper that has come to us.”
Benge defended his seriousness of purpose, and that of others in the majority party: “We are looking at several steps. There has been discussion in several quarters about discounting of some tax credits. We’ve learned that might not be as easy as it sounds.”
The speaker also touched on confidentiality strictures that help economic development (ED) recruiters as they seek to entice businesses to the Sooner State: “There are some problems in the confidentiality area. There is sensitive business information that enterprises thinking of doing business with or in Oklahoma don’t want to have turned over to competitors.”
One reporter asked whether or not tax credit programs had been too generous. Benge replied, “I’d be reluctant to say they’ve been too generous. Another big problem in dealing with the tax credits or placing new limits in a broad sense is that the activity generated by the best of the credits is not something that any of us, in either party, wants to lose. We need to be judicious about any steps we take, including new requirements to disclose information that helps economic development specialists with recruitment.”
As for the future, Benge said greater scrutiny to the operation of tax credits, and their administration, was a welcome idea: “I am not too critical of what went on before, but going forward I think it is not a bad exercise to institutionalize our scrutiny of the whole process.”
Another reporter wondered if there is enough transparency in the government’s operations touching on credits and exemptions. Benge replied, “You ought to be able to get more of the information about the functioning of the tax credits, and it ought to be as much as possible in real time. However, somehow we have to take care not to put businesses at risk to having inside information available to competitors. There’s got to be a balance. “
Concering a rural business tax credit identified by Gov. Brad Henry as a potential for elimination, Benge commented, “I think it’s possible we’ll have a moratorium on that rather than elimination.”
Concerning speculation legislators might have to return after the May 28 adjournment, Benge said, “I don’t think we’ll need a special session. We do, without a doubt, need to move on the budget sooner rather than later. The clock is ticking.”
Benge rejected assertions his party had pushed politically-charged issues rather than budget votes to gain advantages in the upcoming elections, saying, “I don’t think that’s right. If you consult the polls I think you’ll certainly see that health care and Second Amendment issues are of great, great concern to Oklahomans.”
Warming to the topic, he continued, “When voters are asked how they feel on those issues, it’s clear that they have fundamental differences with the current federal administration. Barack Obama is philosophically different than most Oklahomans. Those feelings get expressed pretty strongly right here at the Capitol in many of the debates, discussions and decisions that we make. It’s like a large ball of energy comes here based on what people believe in support and oppose.”
He concluded, “I must say I think the issues that have a state and federal component that we’ve considered reflect the views of our people. As a state, we feel we can address health care without federal mandates. That’s what our efforts have reflected in the legislature.”