Budget dominates debate in both House, Senate
By Patrick B. McGuigan
When it comes to state government spending, the governor proposes, but the Legislature disposes. The “disposing” process is proving tougher this year than any in recent memory, as the state faces a $1.3 billion revenue shortfall, more than 20% below original income projections.
The difficulties facing members of both the House and Senate were manifest on Wednesday. The House remained in session past normal business hours, locked up over spending issues, while the Senate appropriations panel grappled over spending priorities. Divisions in the chambers do not fall entirely along predictable partisan lines, but pressures for and against spending proposals continue to dominate the early days of the session.
On Tuesday, Treasurer Scott Meacham reported January income collections showed improvement over recent months. Further, approximately $10 million in gross production tax collections from oil came for the first time this fiscal year, starting the process of filling three education-related funds.
As Meacham said, “one month does not make a trend.” Despite modest gains, he said the Christmas Eve storm and other and other adverse weather kept sales taxes down and effected motor vehicle tax collections, and other revenue categories remained depressed.
Still, revenues were “plenty to cover the [previously reduced] allocations.”
Sen. Earl Garrison, a Muskogee Democrat, had advocated shortening the legislative session as one way to save money. At the regularly scheduled press conference updating the Oklahoma finance picture, Treasurer Meacham said savings achievable from a shortened legislative session would be “nominal.”
After presenting the modestly improved revenue picture for last month, Meacham was asked about Garrison’s proposal to end the legislative session eight to 12 weeks early. Meacham estimated savings would amount to only $300,000, and concluded, “we owe it to the people to do the best we can to make the decisions that need to be made” to balance the budget.
On Tuesday, Meacham said a big gap remained in the spending expectations of Gov. Brad Henry and the legislative Republicans. In response to a question from CapitolBeatOK, state Treasurer Scott Meacham said the gap over the expected “raid” of the Rainy Day fund remains “a little over $100 million.”
Gov. Henry, in last week’s executive budget, projected leaving only $43 million in the Constitutional Reserve after filling holes in the 2010 and 2011 budgets.
Senate President Pro Temp Glenn Coffee has stated a preference for something more than $150 million of the roughly $600 million balance, but House Speaker Chris Benge and his colleagues want to have more than half the fund still in hand when this session is over, limiting the “raid” to some $240 million.
On Tuesday, Meacham said no new consultations among the governor and the two legislative leaders had been held. Concerning one of the most controversial potential budget cuts, furloughs of state Highway Patrol troopers, Meacham had no comment. He did note that it appears “the department will have to do furloughs. And some decision will have to be made this month to allow them time to have an orderly furlough plan.”
Coffee remarked, “we haven’t yet reversed the downward trend, if indeed we’ve even hit the bottom yet. This reality makes it even more imperative that we exercise prudence and restraint in crafting a 2011 budget.”
Benge reflected, “It remains unclear if we have reached the bottom of this financial downturn. There are some signs of an economic pulse nationally, but we may see a delay in those effects in Oklahoma until a strong demand for natural gas returns.”