After emergency clauses fall short in Senate, Coffee and Corn collide

By Patrick B. McGuigan

Published: 01-Mar-2010

State Senate Democrats united to block emergency clauses on appropriations measures in two votes cast today (Monday, March 1). As a result, a budget accord reached among Oklahoma Gov. Brad Henry, a Democrat, and two Republicans — Senate President Pro Tem Glenn Coffee and House Speaker Chris Benge – partially unraveled as funds remained “locked up.”

A unified Senate Democratic caucus of 22 Senators meant that Republican leaders, with 26 members on their side, could not muster 32 votes required for passage of emergency clauses on those two linchpin measures.

Sen. Ken Corn of Poteau said, “The failure of Republican legislative leadership to provide less than $2.5 million needed to restore full funding to senior citizen meal programs statewide for the rest of the fiscal year is the main reason I voted against emergency clause legislation today that was designed to solve the state’s budget crisis.

“Today, I and all other Senate Democrats have made our positions crystal clear. Senior meal programs should receive every penny of the money they need to feed every hungry senior citizen for the remainder of the 2010 budget year. Senior meal programs need to be fully funded in 2011.”

Senate President Pro Tem Coffee countered Corn, saying, “It is a curious decision by the Democrats today. They are fighting for restoration of a line item, senior nutrition, which they cut in the 2003 budget crisis.”

Most of the cluster of supplemental budget resolutions and measures to access the reserve passed with two-thirds support, but failure of two emergency clauses triggered cascading consequences and at least partial collapse of the budget framework. The result keeps funds in the Constitutional Reserve (the Rainy Day Fund) that had been expected to go to common education and Corrections, among other agencies. State emergency funds for disaster relief are in doubt. The affected agencies include the state Historical Society, the School for the Deaf, the School for the Blind, Department of Public Safety, Military Department, Agriculture and Conservation.

In an interview with CapitolBeatOK, state Sen. Andrew Rice of Oklahoma City said a solution was within reach but that he and fellow Senate Democrats “were not at the table” when the budget accord was reached, and were not able to force explicit inclusion of the $2.5 million for senior nutrition centers. That triggered the unified step on two of the 20 funding measures, he said.

In his prepared statement, Sen. Corn also said, “I urge the leadership to re-open budget talks, to include everyone in the process, and to come back with legislation that solves all of our most critical problems.”

Coffee said Corn’s stance contrasts with decisions reached in 2003, a non-election year. Further, he said, “They complain about not having a seat at the negotiating table, yet the governor and his budget negotiator, the Democrat State Treasurer, negotiated this bipartisan agreement on their behalf.”

While details remain to be defined by the Office of State Finance, allocation cuts for some agencies in fiscal year 2010 may now rise to 12% a month, higher than the 10% many departments have implemented in recent months (averaging out to 7.5% when blended with earlier 5% reductions).

The extent of challenges presented by the turn of events was somewhat unclear. Not all reporters had a chance to secure answers that will likely come tomorrow. Several journalists remained in the Senate chamber watching final debate on other issues, anticipating a press conference would, as announced, take place after adjournment for the day. But Corn and others met with television reporters while the Senate was still in session, then Coffee followed with his availability in the closing minutes of the session.

From the other side of the Rotunda on the Fourth Floor, House Speaker Chris Benge issued the last declaration in a tumultuous day at the Capitol, saying, “Senate Democrats have jeopardized public safety by ensuring furlough of Corrections employees and state troopers.” Benge reflected, “We appreciate the House Democrats, House and Senate Republicans and Gov. Brad Henry for putting politics aside during this incredibly difficult budget shortfall.”