Sen. Rice reflects on budget crunch, MidTown OKC agenda

By Patrick B. McGuigan

Andrew Rice of Midtown Oklahoma City was recently named leader-designate for Democrats in the state Senate. As a result, he is deeply involved in discussions about Oklahoma’s revenue picture and spending challenges facing the Sooner State. In an interview with CapitolBeatOK, Rice said he expects a special session, but is not certain it will come as quickly as some hope.

He also commented on the recent press release of state Rep. David Dank, a Republican who has carved out a position on the revenue crunch that is somewhat distinct from the position of GOP legislative leaders. Rice said, “I generally agree with him. I am in favor of targeted or surgical cuts. I am hesitant to follow Pro Temp Glenn Coffee right now with any across-the-board cuts. I think we need to go agency-by-agency and figure what can really be cut. I hope we access the Rainy Day Fund to avoid certain critical cuts that would impact vulnerable populations. I am certainly concerned with avoiding cuts in mental health and substance abuse programs.”

Concerning the special session, “I think it is much more likely now than just a few weeks ago. The revenue picture continues to stay weak so we need to take action. Whether we go into a special session in December or perhaps in January is a little bit up in the air at this point.”

Asked about continued advocacy for his base in Midtown Oklahoma City, he reflected, “Growing MidTown is obviously a priority. A lot of the ideas I am working to advance as best I can are Jim Roth-type ideas.” Roth, former state Corporation Commissioner, was twice elected an Oklahoma County Commissioner. Rice explained, “It’s going to be hard to advance ideas to give tax credits or other incentives for business until the economy improves, but certainly that is the kind of thing that could help. I support tax credits for building contractors, and all ideas to improve our neighborhoods. We’ll be sensitive to revenue concerns but will remain open to opportunities. I’d also like to advance some liquor law changes that might help some of our small businesses, including liquor stores and grocery stores. We want to change laws to allow more openness and, for example, to allow wine sales in groceries, but what do you do then about the 16-year-old cashier at a grocery store?”

Rice continued, “An issue I am grappling with is teenage homelessness, and what really causes it. Are the ‘drivers’ economic or domestic? We’re looking at what drives that dynamic. I do know that it is a growing problem in other states, so we are concerned.”

Rice serves on key committees, Business & Labor, Energy and Environment and Finance. “Obviously, the Finance work is the big one now. Both sides are looking for opportunities to help people through this tough time we are in for state government, but there are of course differences. I think we should be looking at the trigger mechanism for further tax cuts. I am glad the Oklahoma Policy Institute is analyzing whether or not to link possible cuts in the income tax to the prior full year or the current and most recent data. … Momentum for further tax cuts [might] be curbed and that might be the right path to take. A question I am asking is whether or not we can afford to take the income tax rates down that last or additional step.”

Concerning spending priorities in tough times, he said, “I know we need to keep the revenue going for certain state agencies, especially working on mental health issues. I know that Sen. Harry Coates [a Seminole Republican] is interested in the money being spent on Corrections, to be sure it is spent right.”

Concerning access to the Constitutional Reserve, better known as the Rainy Day Fund, Rice said, “I lean toward the idea that we use the federal stimulus funds still available to us and limit ourselves to about half the Rainy Day money.” Asked about the possibility, analyzed previously by this reporter, that state government revenues may remain flat for a few years, Rice said, “That is exactly the reason not to liquidate all of [the reserve], to save more or to hang on to what we can in case we need it later.”

Asked to outline areas of agreement between the two parties at the Capitol, Sen. Rice reported, “You and I have been talking about health, mental health, public safety, transportation and education issues. I think the Legislature and the governor will do what is reasonable in those areas. However, the Tourism agency might be a place where some economies can be reached.”
As for Treasurer Scott Meacham’s hopes that natural gas prices will boost state government tax receipts, “I certainly hope he is right. We’re all working hard because we want to have a feel for what 2010 will really look like.”

In the end, Rice predicted a special session “will last about three days, it will be efficient, and we will use a lot but not all of the [reserve] fund. If for some reason there is not some sort of understanding about the general approach in advance, we might have to put the special session off. It’s still possible we’ll wait until after the Equalization Board meets late in December.”

Turning to the politics of 2010 and beyond, Rice said, “I am honored to be the designated leader. If we Democrats retake the Senate I’ll be the President Pro Temp. If not then I will be the minority leader. We face some tough and competitive situations because some of my colleagues are leaving: [Ken] Corn [of Poteau], [Johnnie] Crutchfield [of Ardmore], [Mary] Easley [of Tulsa], [Joe] Sweeden [of Pawhuska].”

Asked about seats where Democrats might be in a position to gain or take back a Republican position, he pointed toward the Midwest City area, “The Cliff Aldridge seat, which I still think of as the Dave Herbert seat, is one where a Democrat could win. I’m not sure Aldridge is vulnerable but it is certainly one we’re looking at.”

Rice reflected on the national picture, and Oklahoma’s potential place in it: “Around the country, it looks as if incumbents may have a hard time. It was amazing in Virginia where 10 legislative incumbents were defeated. There is disenchantment, but will that be the case in Oklahoma? In 2008 incumbents were for the most part ok, Sen. Nancy Riley [a Tulsan who switched from Republicans to the Democrats, and was then defeated] was the exception. But the term limits helped Republicans. I am not sure that is still the case.”

Rice contends legislators in both parties, “have to be smart, in a year where the budget will dominate. I am studying very carefully the input of experts and colleagues who are identifying areas that we all need to protect in the Legislature. I really don’t want to see further health, mental health and substance abuse spending cuts.”

Pressed on potential budget cuts that could curb outlays, he said it would be “a shame to lose that ability to give incentives for making films here in Oklahoma. I’m all for it but right now that might be one to trim. I’d certainly pick cuts there rather than further cuts in senior nutrition programs.

“Continuing cuts that hurt seniors or health may create more fiscal problems for us down the line. The way to save money in those areas is actually to preserve the spending now.”

Bringing the discussion home to central Oklahoma County, Rice said, “In my district, the areas we’ve discussed are the matters of greatest importance, and not so much some of the fights that are so divisive elsewhere, such as some social issues. I have seen common ground with the Chambers and the business community on important issues. We certainly want to keep momentum for the strength of the MidTown area in medical research and spending.”