Coffee says staff furloughs and ‘buy outs’ possible after session ends

By Patrick B. McGuigan

Published: 27-Mar-2010

In a wide-ranging exchange with Capitol reporters late this week, Senate President Pro Tem Glenn Coffee said furloughs of Senate staff are likely after the end of this year’s regular legislative session. Noting that appropriations committee hearings are continuing in both the House and Senate, Coffee said he and House Speaker Chris Benge are “in the very early stages” of negotiations with Gov. Brad Henry and other state officials over the Fiscal Year 2011 Oklahoma state budget.

Coffee plans to return to the Senate staff budget crunch “soon.” He hinted that long-standing coffee and tea service “will be suspended after this session.” While not ruling out staff reductions-in-force, Coffee said the state’s ongoing budget crunch “is real, and is not easing any time soon.” He said he was examining “VBOs” (voluntary buy outs) and hoped sufficient savings could be gained with those and furloughs Coffee also anticipates cuts in per diem payments:  “That will effect members, and won’t be popular.”

Coffee briefly expressed frustration with legislators and others who have criticized the budget process. He observed, “the hearings on budget issues are often not well attended by members. I believe we offer many opportunities for members in both Houses to impact the budget deliberations.” He said he believes most state agency heads know they must “prepare for tough times, because we face a significant budget hole.”

State government revenue is $1.2 billion short of covering previously projected costs for FY 2011. After using federal stimulus funds, part of the Constitutional Reserve (the “Rainy Day Fund”) and other resources, the “hole” is currently estimated at about $850 million.

Asked about a decision by Senate Appropriations Chairman Mike Johnson of Kingfisher not to hear legislation banning the sale of human eggs for reproductive purposes, the Republican leader said, “I haven’t spoken to Senator Johnson about that. I believe, however, that Sen. [Brian] Crain [of Tulsa] is asking for an interim study group to focus on the issue. A question is whether the purpose of all that is to help people have children or to use them for stem cell research. I think more study is the right approach at this time.”

Sen. Coffee repeated his strong criticisms of the new federal health care bill, again calling on Attorney General Drew Edmondson to take legal action to block the new law on constitutional grounds. He also observed that Insurance Commissioner Kim Holland, a Democrat, has indicated she is troubled by the measure’s provisions.

Coffee disagreed with constitutional scholars who have said Oklahoma legislators are advocating deficient approaches in challenging the new law. Coffee pointed to the work of the Goldwater Institute (an Arizona-based “think tank”) and legal analyst Clint Bolick as providing a wide range of possible challenges to the new law.

Coffee repeated his call for Edmondson to take action against the law.

One reporter asked Coffee is he had any reaction to reports of property damage and threats aimed at congressional Democrats who had backed the federal health care law. He said such actions were “inexcusable and inappropriate.” Coffee recalled an incident last year, during the height of debate over state tort reform measures, in which the driver side window of one of his personal vehicles was smashed. The car was at time parked in the driveway of Coffee’s northwest Oklahoma City home.

Coffee said he is optimistic a series of pro-life measures will pass this year. Most of the bills emerged after a state Supreme Court decision declared earlier legislation was “logrolling” – impermissible coverage of more than one subject in a single bill.

In response to a question from CapitolBeatOK, Coffee said he had not discussed the new bills with Gov. Brad Henry, who had signed the legislation the court overturned. Coffee said legislative leaders would be discussing workers’ comp reform proposals with the chief executive before moving ahead toward a final vote.