Rep. Morrissette and Rep. Osborn discuss budget, rainy day fund and other pending issues
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Published: 01-Feb-2015

OKLAHOMA CITY – The state budget, specifically how much revenue is available to spend and how much is required to meet genuine needs, dominated the latest “Your Vote Counts” program on News9, the CBS affiliate in Oklahoma City.

Panelists also discussed the latest raft of bills and resolutions filed for consideration this year by the Legislature, and the announcement that the Supreme Court of the United States will review the drugs that Oklahoma uses to execute convicted felons.

State Budget

Moderator Scott Mitchell prompted Rep. Richard Morrissette, D-Oklahoma City, and Rep. Leslie Osborn, R-Mustang, to discuss budget issues facing the Legislature as it convenes Monday (February 2) to start its annual four-month regular session.

The State Board of Equalization issued a preliminary estimate in mid-December 2014 that the Legislature will have $300 million less to spend this year than last year.

The final figure “on which we’ll pattern the state budget” will be announced by the Equalization Board later this month, noted Osborn. Updated numbers “will probably be worse because of the slide” in gross production tax receipts after a swoon in oil prices, Osborn observed.

Rep. Osborn this session will chair the House Appropriations and Budget Subcommittee on Natural Resources and Regulatory Services.

According to state Treasurer Ken Miller, the current budget, for Fiscal Year 2015, set expected oil prices at $86.99 per barrel. The updated FY 2016 estimate is based on a price of $59.97 per barrel, a 31 percent drop. Adding to worries for state officials, West Texas Intermediate crude was commanding just $48.24 per barrel on Sunday.

Gov. Mary Fallin has said the funding gap can be closed by again siphoning off some of the revolving funds sitting in various state-agency bank accounts. The Legislature withdrew $291.7 million from agency revolving funds and reserve accounts last year, ledgers reflect.

Rep. Morrissette said he believes the state’s deficit is “a lot worse” than $300 million.

And, House Minority Leader Scott Inman, D-Del City, contends the state budget shortfall will be closer to $400 million. Inman contended that besides the $300 million, an additional $60 million is already pledged for bridge, road and highway improvements, while $40 million is earmarked for ad valorem tax reimbursements the state government will make to school districts to offset property tax exemptions awarded to manufacturers.

According to the Oklahoma Tax Commission, ad valorem tax manufacturing reimbursements last year climbed to $64 million, a 39 percent hike in one year. Half of that amount was attributed to the electric wind generation industry. A little over two-thirds of the reimbursement, $43 million, was earmarked for public schools.

A lot of attention has been focused lately on scaling back the number and size of tax credits the state has in place. 

Osborn recommended caution in evaluating those concessions. “If they are bringing jobs in … if they are doing what we need for the economy, we need to continue them. We need to be careful how we judge them.”

Osborn also said some legislators will recommend tapping the state’s $535 million “rainy day” fund. “I believe we should stay away from that,” she said, because the state’s financial picture “could get worse before it gets better.”

If the Republican-dominated Legislature intends to “balance the budget and govern responsibly,” said Morrissette, then spending some of the reserves in the rainy day account “is a necessity” in order to “meet the needs of the people of Oklahoma.”

Morrissette, a member of the House Committee on Appropriations and Budget, said later that the state budget “should be scrutinized in much greater detail” than previously.

Other Important Issues

Osborn believes that “a lot” of ideas proposed by newly elected state schools Supt. Joy Hofmeister will be center stage in this year’s legislative session, including “a push to get more money to teacher salaries.” Osborn also said many legislators will embrace a “pullback” on some of the testing that’s now mandated in primary and secondary schools.

Morrissette observed, “There are issues galore out there that no one is talking about.: He cited prison crowding and little progress on alternatives to incarceration, the quality of care provided in Oklahoma nursing homes and in state veterans’ centers, foot-dragging on the Pinnacle Plan in which the state Department of Human Services vowed to improve Oklahoma’s child welfare system, the lack of health insurance among hundreds of thousands of state residents, and the overall poor health of Oklahomans.

Volume/Disposition of Legislation

By the time the filing deadline expired Jan. 22, a total of 2,034 bills (1,219 in the House and 815 in the Senate) and 58 joint resolutions (26 House, 32 Senate) had been filed for consideration during the 1st Regular Session of the 55th Oklahoma Legislature.

“Only one in seven of those will make it through the legislative process,” Osborn predicted, based on historical data. Even so, that’s about 300 measures that would become law.

The House and the Senate will spend the first four weeks of session conducting committee meetings in which they will discuss and vote on their respective measures, followed by two weeks in which the 101 House members and the 48 Senators will debate and vote on measures endorsed by their respective committees. March 12 is the deadline for the House and the Senate to pass judgment on bills and resolutions in their chamber of origin.

Morrissette, who is starting his 11th year in the House, asserted that the first month and a half of the session “will be a waste.”

§ Legislators “spend many days doing nothing,” he said later. “Sometimes we meet in session for only five minutes.”

§ The Senate treats the House “like a red-headed stepchild,” he said. “There’s a definite lack of coordination and cooperation between the House and the Senate.”

Tracking Legislation

Mitchell asked the two lawmakers what the ‘average citizen’ can do to track legislation and keep tabs on what the Legislature is doing.

Osborn recommended blogs such as the McCarville Report and the Red Dirt Report, and monitoring the Oklahoma Watch news website.

“It starts with citizen interest,” Morrissette asserted. “You have to be interested in what’s going on.” He pointed out that audio and video of House floor sessions are streamed live over the Internet, and audio of House committee meetings is aired over the Internet, too.

Execution Protocol Review

The U.S. Supreme Court said Wednesday that cannot perform executions using the drug midazolam while the Justices consider a challenge over whether the sedative ensures that the condemned prisoners won't suffer. (Midazolam has been used in executions in Florida, Arizona and Ohio as well as Oklahoma.)

Morrissette, a defense attorney, said the Supreme Court will focus its attention on whether the midazolam protocol “meets the fundamental principles mandated by the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution,” which forbids cruel and unusual punishment.

Your Vote Counts” is a 10-minute program featuring a point-counterpoint format. It airs Sunday mornings on KWTV-9 in Oklahoma City; afterward, the show is uploaded to the Internet at www.news9.com/yourvotecounts

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