Sen. Mike Schulz reviews Senate week, tells reporters revenue gains ‘encouraging’

By Patrick B. McGuigan

Published 19-Feb-2011
Senate Majority Leader Mike Schulz, an Altus Republican, struck alternating notes of caution and determination in a session with state Capitol reporters this week.
Subbing for Senate President Pro Tem Brian Bingman, who was headed to Washington, D.C. for meetings, Schulz said he and colleagues were heartened by news that state government revenues are coming in more than $100 million higher than previously projected.
Sen. Schulz said he had anticipated cuts of perhaps $650 million in state spending. However, Treasurer Ken Miller and Finance Director Preston Doerflinger are projecting, based on January revenue numbers, a roughly $106 million higher certification.
Schulz said news was “very encouraging” on the fiscal front, although he noted, “we’ll know more next week,” after the Board of Equalization (BOE) has its first meeting since inauguration day. Concerning the comparatively brighter revenue news, he said, “We’d probably use that money to lower some of the agency budget cuts.”
The BOE will for the first time in state history be an entirely Republican body, as every constitutional officer’s post on the panel is held by the GOP. In recent years, the body has been entirely composed of Democrats.
On the policy front, Schulz expressed satisfaction at advancement to the Senate floor of measures to create “letter grades” for public schools — (House Bill 1456 and Senate Bill 348), allowing parents better to assess educational quality and performance — and to ban social promotion. On the latter, he echoed the statements of other state leaders, including Governor Mary Fallin, that students should “learn to read until third grade, then shift toward  reading to learn.”
Schulz was also happy with progress for Senate Bill 863, placing a “hard cap” on non-economic damages in tort litigation, noting the bill in his view included “a gross negligence exception.”
On education policy, Schulz repeated his support for reforms in governance of the state Board of Education. Concerning contrasting reform approaches taken in two bills advanced in senate committee deliberations, he said “at the end of the session, obviously both of them won’t be on the governors desk.”
On one of the hottest issues of the session, Schulz stated support for “some of the tax credits and exemptions” that promote economic development. He pointed to aerospace investment incentives that officials say helped lure Boeing to Oklahoma. However, he pointed to state Rep. David Dank’s criticisms of transferable tax credits and remarked that he agreed that approach “had opened the door up to abuse.”
The second week of the 2011 legislative session was a busy one, due to the loss of work days after a massive blizzard struck the state, the second huge storm this winter.
While most of the work this past week was packed into Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, major committee deliberations took place on Thursday. Wednesday, a state House committee began to process significant reforms to government pension and retirement programs, a matter certain to be the focus of state employee groups planning to come to the Capitol on February 21 (Monday). Members of the Oklahoma Public Employees Association (OPEA) plan a rally on the Capitol steps at 11:30 a.m., according to a release sent to CapitolBeatOK.
Concerning the pension issues, Sen. Schulz echoed past somber assessment from his leader, Sen. Bingman. Schulz said, “This is something I wish we had addressed years ago.” He expressed confidence in the deliberations in the upper chamber, which are being guided by Sen. Mike Mazzei, a Tulsa Republican.
Responding to questions from CapitolBeatOK and other news organizations concerning the modest surge in state revenue, Sen. Schulz said, “I don’t believe we can make a direct deposit” to shore up pensions and retirements, at least not “until the economy is better.” He said cost-of-living adjustments (COLAs) are unlikely for this session, but “I don’t think it’s fair to say you’re never going to receive another COLA.”
Schulz said a priority for his caucus is to “protect whatever promises have been made” to existing state employees for benefits. He cautioned, however, “Any new [state government] employees very well could be looking at new rules.”