Governor Mary Fallin’s executive budget “not a work of fiction?” Time will tell

by Patrick B. McGuigan

Published 09-Feb-2011

In discussions with reporters this week, legislative leaders generally praised the work of Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin’s budget team, and the spending framework set forward in her address to the Legislature. The interviews came before the Legislature and most of the rest of government came to a halt as a second major blizzard rolled into the Sooner State late Tuesday.

Monday, in coordination with her State of the State address before a joint session of the House and Senate, Fallin presented a budget plan her staff deemed a “roadmap to prosperity.” Members of her administration, including Secretary of State Glenn Coffee and Finance Director Preston L. Doerflinger said the budget was “a conservative plan to work through” the anticipated gap between tax revenue and expenditures in Fiscal Year 2012.

Government agency cuts in the Fallin spending vision range from around 3% for public safety, education and health/human services, to higher cuts of about 5% at other agencies. Those cuts combined with “government modernization” and “cost-saving innovations” would lead to “shared sacrifice rather than tax hikes.” Fallin explicitly endorsed the income tax rate “trigger” to slice one-quarter percent from the unpopular levy.

The lower spending fits, the governor and her staff asserted, with her intention to make jobs creation/retention and economic growth the state’s number priority. Policy reforms she stressed include both workers compensation changes and lawsuit reforms. Fallin’s call for both a “governor’s closing fund” and close scrutiny of tax credits and other business incentives garnered attention after the speech.

The Fallin team said the modernization push would account for some of the reduction in spending, through shifts from paper to electronic billing and payments, plugging Higher Education into the state’s central purchasing system, consolidating Information Technology [IT] services, and establishing uniform bookkeeping. Fallin promised support for “Oklahoma-based” health care reforms such as Insure Oklahoma, an existing public-private partnership, and health care exchanges. She reiterated support for a variety of education policy reforms, including (as a cost-saving measure) consolidation of administrative services. She praised new Superintendent of Public Instruction Janet Barresi and Secretary of Education Phyllis Hudecki during the address.

Monday evening, a half-dozen journalists who had stuck around for a much-longer-than-anticipated day at the state Capitol in Oklahoma City gained the opportunity to interview Kris Steele of Shawnee, the new Speaker. Because he had spent several hours wrapped up in a long debate on new rules to govern the House of Representatives, Steele confessed he had not reviewed the new executive budget line by line.

However, in response to a question from CapitolBeatOK, asking if the document was “a work of fiction,” Steele replied, “I don’t think it is. By no means is it a final product, but I must say it is a serious starting point. The governor’s proposed budget cuts are in the ballpark.”

The Speaker stressed that Fallin’s “policies and priorities match well with the members of our caucus. For the most part, we’re in line with her, as well.”

Steele wondered if the chief executive’s proposed $3 million supplemental appropriation for the Corrections Department would, in fact, be adequate. He noted the agency originally sought was asking $34 million more money to finish the current fiscal year (2011). He noted there was strong support in the Republican caucus for “preventing furloughs” at Corrections, if possible.

Steele applauded Fallin’s policy themes. He told reporters he was heartened by Fallin’s request to see legislation that is both “tough and smart” on crime. He said he was especially pleased with her emphasis on criminal justice reform and changes in corrections, to include attention to better mental health policies and use of drug courts for diversion, when appropriate, from incarceration. Fallin singled out Women in Recovery, a Tulsa organization Steele has supported for several years, for high praise in her speech.

Steele said he was “impressed and intrigued” with proposals for one payroll system and other changes effecting the state’s Higher Education system. Steele said he wanted to study the details of the governor’s proposal for a $100 million transportation bond issue. “I need to see the details before I could comment,” he said. However, Steele reflected, “I believe some amount of bond money is coming off the books.” Steele said he remains committed to supporting transportation funding.

Earlier on Monday afternoon, while the House Rules debate raged, Senate President Pro Tem Brian Bingman had his session with journalists, saying he was “encouraged by the governor’s speech.” He found her message “in line with the message members of the House and Senate have drawn from the November election.” He cheered her intention to trim state spending to offset the anticipated $600 million shortfall. Bingman stressed he was “anxious to study the specifics.”

Pressed by reporters to name specific programs or agencies that might face budget cuts, he said he had no “pet suggestions” for cuts. Like Steele, he wanted to tackle the proposed agency consolidations and efficiencies in Information Technology, and other steps that may bring savings to state government operations. He agreed with Fallin’s emphasis on supporting effective business incentive programs, but added, “If it’s not effective, put it on the chopping block.”

As for Fallin’s request for a “closing fund” available to the governor’s office to bring major business recruitment deals to successful conclusion, Bingman said, “We’ll look at that.” He noted “that is a tool they have in Texas, that we don’t.”

In response to CapitolBeatOK’s question, Bingman he did not consider the governor’s budget a work of fiction, but rather “a good framework, a good starting point for us. I commend her and her staff. At the end of the day, the budget we actually pass will be different in some particulars than what started out. That’s the art of compromise.”

Bingman said senators would consider the governor’s request for 2011 supplemental funding to the Health Care Authority ($15 million) and for Corrections ($3 million, see above). However, he admitted, “The difficulty I have at this point is this: Where does the money come from?”

The Sapulpa Republican echoed Speaker Steele’s support for Fallin’s criminal justice reform proposals, noting, “the drug courts have been successful. If there’s any way we can look at opportunities to do a better job it is certainly merits looking at.”

Asked to sum up his views, assigning Fallin a letter grade, Bingman responded, “I’d have to give her an ‘A.’ What she set out was pretty much what we have been talking about.”

As for Democrats at the Capitol, while disagreeing with certain policy prescriptions, many were warily supportive of the chief executive’s speech and budget, saying they were waiting to see details in the forthcoming budget process.