Bingman and colleagues press for budget cuts, Rice cautions: “don’t go too far”

By Patrick B. McGuigan

Published 21-Jan-2011

The Republican Senate caucus unveiled its policy agenda for the 2011 legislative session. While specifics were in most cases not offered, the majority’s themes were consistent with those articulated during the 2010 campaign.

Senate President Pro Temp Brian Bingman of Sapulpa reemphasized his view that the Legislature must enact budget cuts in the range of $600 million to assure the constitutionally-required balance.

In an interview a few hours after the Grand Old Party laid out its policy objectives, minority leader Andrew Rice, an Oklahoma City Democrat, expressed support for many, but not all, of the stated goals, adding: “Just don’t go too far.”

Key points in the Republican agenda included health care reforms suited to Oklahoma, opposition to the controversial federal health care law, and support for tighter scrutiny of Medicaid spending patterns.

Senator Bingman’s analysis of fiscal trends was somber, yet leavened with hopefulness. He told reporters, “We are very optimistic about Oklahoma and the direction we are going. … We plan to push for measurable reforms. Our goal is reducing the cost of doing business in Oklahoma, creating initiatives to create jobs for Oklahomans. The economy in America and in the world is very competitive, and we’re not going to back off.”

Sen. David Myers of Ponca City backed up his leader’s estimates on the budget “hole,” saying “Basically it’s simple math. That’s the hole we’ve got. In the final analysis that means some painful cuts.” Bingman thereafter quipped, “We’re asking everyone to put on their surgical gloves.” Myers at one point expressed hesitation to go along with suggestions that some growth revenue might allow lower cuts.

Bingman said his members would support tax code reforms, seek to capitalize on abundant natural resources, and “grow new jobs in the private sector, not in government . … It is our job to enact the things, the expectations, that we have heard from Oklahomans” in the historic 2010 campaign.

Bingman’s top lieutenant, Sen. Mike Shultz of Altus, pressed similar themes: “I believe everybody in this building understands the fiscal situation that we’re in and the work that we have to do. We are determined not to borrow from tomorrow to spend money today.

“There will be special, extra scrutiny given to fiscal impact bills. They will be getting a double assignment so we understand both the spending impact and the policy impact of a proposal.”

Shultz promised “greater transparency to avoid final week problems, to have more responsibility and accountability.” He also said the caucus had a goal of zero-based budgeting for all state agencies within five years.

Sen. Bryce Marlatt of Woodward said Republican prided themselves on recent improvements in reliability of transportation funding, and pledged to keep those as priorities.

Sen. Gary Stanislawski of Tulsa said the caucus would insist on improved education throughout the state, to assure a full array of services “regardless of location.”  He also said members were excited by Schools Superintendent Janet Barresi’s ideas, which were “overwhelmingly endorsed by voters.”

When asked if support for education reform included possible benefits to private schools, Bingman replied, “Sure, absolutely.”

In response to questions, Bingman insisted “We have to get serious about funding the state’s pension systems. It would take $750 million a year to fund all of them, for 20 years, to get to the 80% funding level that is considered the minimum.”

Bingman hinted at the subsequent appointment of a panel to study immigration reform, telling reporters he wants to “know what the real issues are” before deciding on further Arizona-style changes in the law.

A simultaneous presentation of the majority agenda was given in both Oklahoma City and Ardmore.

In the prepared material for this week’s press conference, Republicans promised “lawsuit and workers compensation reforms that reduce the cost of business and allow doctors to practice in Oklahoma without overly costly malpractice rates.”

In an interview with CapitolBeatOK, Senator Rice reflected that the majority’s presentation was “not as specific as I thought it would be.

I want to stress that in some areas there is and will continue to be true bipartisan agreement. In other areas, like the voucher stuff, there are members of my caucus who will fight very hard against advancing those ideas.”

He continued, “All of us to some extent work to get tax breaks for our constituents or for those we think deserve them. The problem we are facing is that balancing that is that we don’t want these revenue failures to become habitual. If we try to lower ad valorem taxes even more, how do we keep moving along on making the income tax rates lower? The point is the cuts have to be kept from becoming too deep.”

While there is “actually some sympathy in our caucus … to cut taxes, we must sufficiently fund the core services of government. The majority caucus is putting forward some ideas that are incredibly popular and that are hard not to do. But in doing the easy stuff, then we might wind up fiddling with stuff that is not as popular with constituencies but which is actually effective in economic development.”

Rice continued, “One thing we’ll be saying is that we can’t do it all. We have to balance cuts with protecting key revenue or we just won’t be able to fund the essentials.”

He said, “On the proposals for further workers comp and tort reform measures, we are open to compromise. But I guess I’d say essentially the same thing I did above. Our message is ‘don’t go too far.’ That’s not a sexy message, but it’s where we are.”

He summed himself up this way: “We are amendable to working with the majority, but don’t want it to go too far. We doubt you really can keep cutting higher education, common education and CareerTech and somehow it doesn’t hurt.”