Budget impasse enters third day; Sen. Laster defends caucus

By Patrick B. McGuigan

Published: 3-Mar-2010

Rhetorical conflict continued for a third day at the Oklahoma Legislature, as Republicans countered the unified Senate Democratic caucus opposition emergency declarations needed to trigger access to the Constitutional Reserve. The impasse prevents completion of Fiscal Year 2010 budgeting.

Two Republican legislators planned to highlight the divide today (Wednesday, March 3) in a press conference, along with officers from corrections and the Highway Patrol. Meanwhile, the governor’s office said resolution of the deadlock remains possible.

Yesterday afternoon, Senate Minority Leader Charlie Laster, a Shawnee Democrat, listed options he said would bridge the difference in the upper chamber, while trying to avoid direct criticism of Gov. Brad Henry. The governor had signed off on the budget deal that involved some 20 bills.

Reporters asked Laster if he had talked to chief executive about finding another $2.5 million for senior nutrition programs – the nexus of his attacks on Republicans. Laster replied, “the governor was part of the 3-legged stool that did this” and that he did not believe Henry would not undercut the accord reached with Senate President Pro Tem Glenn Coffee and House Speaker Chris Benge, both Republicans.

Laster said money for the senior program could come from several sources, specifying three: money still in the Constitutional Reserve, the unclaimed property fund being tapped for $30 million, or remaining agency reserves.

Reporters pressed Laster on the reasoning for making the nutrition program at the Department of Human Services (DHS) the heart of opposition to a compromise that requires super-majorities to take effect immediately after the governor’s signature. Laster replied some nutrition programs are needs-based and that his caucus had been consistent in pressing for more money.

CapitolBeatOK asked if the maneuver to withhold support for emergency provisions (meaning funds can not be used until 90 days after legislative adjournment) was meant to send a message that Senate Democrats should have been in negotiations. Stressing Senate Democrats were not in the discussions – “we weren’t at that table” — Laster would not name alternative cuts. Rather, he stressed “money is there” for another $2.5 million.

Laster repeatedly expressed anger over Sen. Coffee’s characterization of Monday’s votes as “bad behavior” that should not be rewarded. Republican analysts have also contended that it would require at least $10 million in the two-year budget cycle to finance the nutrition program.

Concerning involvement of the governor and state Treasurer Scott Meacham, both Democrats, in the comprehensive budget agreement, Laster said he does not “have a vote” in that branch. Laster said he is not empowered to impact the governor or the House, but only the Senate.

In response to a question from writer Frosty Troy, Laster said he had been in “sixth floor meetings” with Republicans over 2011 budget issues, but not on the 2010 budget. Troy has reported the worth of the $2.5 million is about 800,000 meals for senior citizens through the nutrition program.

In comments widely reported this morning, Laster said, “If Sen. Coffee wants to burn this place down, they can get that done. That can be accomplished.” Pressed on whether or not an additional $2.5 million should be taken from the DHS reserve, Laster said that was possible but that resources could come from any agency with reserves. Saying he did not “not want to pick a fight” with any agency, he declined to specify what reserve fund might be used, but agreed DHS was possible. (Under law, money taken from agency reserves must be restored by the end of a fiscal year.)

Wrapping up his back and forth with reporters, Laster said Treasurer Scott Meacham indicated using $30 million of the unclaimed property fund was acceptable, and that he hoped “32 and a half million” would also be a reasonable amount.

Last night, in response to CapitolBeatOK, Paul Sund of the governor’s office said, “Gov. Henry has talked to both Republican and Democratic leaders and is trying to find a resolution to the dispute. We haven’t reached a consensus yet, but discussions are continuing.”