Bingman hints at budget deal, reflects on consolidation, immigration, corrections, hospital fees

Today (Wednesday, April 27), in his weekly discussion with members of the state Capitol press corps, Oklahoma Senate President Pro Tem Brian Bingman of Sapulpa hinted a budget deal is near. 

Bingman told reporters that he and House Speaker Kris Steele have presented their views to the office of Governor Mary Fallin and are waiting on a response. In terms of resolution of decisions on budget cuts, Bingman believes “a framework is in place” for a deal. However, he repeatedly declined opportunities to specify areas of agreement or disagreement among the trio, all of whom are Republicans. 

Bingman and Steele have consistently said slightly deeper agency cuts in the range of 5-7% might be needed to reach balance, as is required in state law. However, the chief executive, Governor Mary Fallin, has stuck to her objective of cuts of no more than 5%, with comparatively protected functions like education and public safety held to 3% or less in cuts. 

In response to a question from CapitolBeatOK, Bingman agreed that the success of House Democrats and a band of dissident Republicans in depriving some bills with budget implications of the “super-majority” needed for emergency clauses could reduce potential savings from steps like consolidation, changes in purchasing procedures and other potential savings. “There will be some effect from that. It’s hard for me to say how much, but that could be a pretty big number,” Bingman said. 

On the broader topic of consolidation in government, he defended the governor’s proposals and Republican legislative support for performing agency work with “fewer employees, through attrition, and more efficiency.” As he has in past discussions, he remarked that the private sector has been through major waves of workforce reductions and increased efficiency, and he thought government needed the same discipline. 

Bingman restated his unwillingness to tap so-called “five percent money,” a mechanism by which growth revenues are pulled back into the pending fiscal year for expenditure. He cautioned, “Next year’s budget already has some one-time money, and we’re using the last stimulus money.” Additionally, tax credit moratoriums will lift, creating additional pressures on the state’s fiscal decision. 

The Senate finished business for the week on Wednesday for the second week in a row, “saving the taxpayers some money,” Bingman reflected. Proposals for possible agency consolidation remain active, but the state Merit Protection Commission seems to have dodged the consolidation bullet. Bingman explained that some senators, “thought the argument that merit protection needed its independence, that was a contention that had some merit.” 

Also around for additional scrutiny is the issue of illegal immigration. Although the leading advocate of tougher laws aimed at illegal immigrants, Sen. Ralph Shortey of Oklahoma City, is unhappy with House Bill 1446 in its current form, the measure sailed past this weeks’ procedural deadlines on a 37-8 vote. With the title removed from the bill, it heads to conference committee deliberations with possible changes still in store. 

In the end, after listing his complaints, Sen. Shortey supported the bill. 

Asked about passage of legislation to create a hospital provider fee, Bingman said the measure had a lot of support on both sides of the aisle. 

He noted that opposition from Americans for Tax Reform came after debate had already begun on the Senate floor. He commented, “I don’t know how their late opposition effected the discussion or the vote. I would have thought they would raise objections earlier if it was a priority.” 

Pressed as to whether opposition from an out-of-state, national group carried any clout, he answered, “It carries at least some. I respectfully disagree. I don’t really look at it as a tax, but as a voluntary fee on hospitals that will come back to us.” 

The Senate leader said he supported House Speaker Kris Steele’s proposals for corrections and prison reforms, but said a number of district attorneys, “And members of our Senate Republican caucus,” had expressed concerns about a proposed shift in the state’s default sentencing structure from concurrent to consecutive. 

Speaking candidly, he agreed there were some members who had raised concern about appearing, as a reporter put it in a question, “soft on crime” if the bill had advanced in earlier reform. However, he disagreed with characterizations of Republican corrections proposals as versions of “early release.”