Senator Earl Garrison proposes shortened legislative session

By Patrick B. McGuigan

Published: 09-Feb-2010

Senator Earl Garrison, a Muskogee Democrat, led a large group of Democrats from the House and Senate who called for a shortened legislative session to save money this fiscal year.

Describing the current challenges as the worst revenue and budget picture since the Great Depression, Garrison shared his ideas at a Capitol press conference this morning (Tuesday, Feb. 9).

Garrison unveiled a plan to cut the 2010 regular session short, focusing only on budget bills in a rapid sprint to adjournment. Sen. Andrew Rice of Oklahoma City, Senate Democratic leader-designate, said Senate costs run about $37,000 a week in session, whereas the House costs about $100,000. With other costs added, the figure is somewhat higher, some of the speakers indicated.

Some legislators at the press conference said the Legislature could adjourn eight to 12 weeks early. That could net $1.2 million or more in savings.

In response to a question, Sen. Rice said members understood Garrison’s proposal might mean members of his caucus would have to withdraw non-budget bills that could not be considered in a shortened session.

On a broader theme, Rice and others noted that Lt. Gov. Jari Askins has proposed holding budget and non-budget sessions in alternating years. Sen. Tom Ivester of Elk City is sponsoring a bill along the lines of Askins’ proposal.

For addressing the Fiscal Year 2010 shortfall of roughly $1.3 billion, lawmakers and the governor have a Rainy Day Fund balance of just under $600 million to work with, along with several hundred million in remaining federal stimulus funds. Gov. Brad Henry has proposed saving several million dollars from agency consolidation.

Assuming FY 2010 issues could be addressed within a few weeks, CapitolBeatOK asked if a shortened session could adequately tackle revenue and budget issues for FY 2011. Sen. Rice replied, “If we focus only on budget issues, yes, it would allow enough time.”

Rice added that saving money — “where the rubber meets the road” — would require the help of Senate Republicans. He also noted that an independent board that sets legislative salaries would need to address possible cuts in legislative salaries. Any fundamental change in the structure of legislative pay would require a state constitutional amendment.

Senate Republicans, including President Pro Temp Glenn Coffee of Oklahoma City, have said furloughs for their staff are likely after session ends.

Explaining his motivation for today’s event, Garrison said, “If your people are in pain, then you’re in pain. My people are in pain.” He reported his son-in-law lost his job last year.  Concerning non-budget bills, he said he thought most people are not too concerned over what should be named the “state food” or the “state song,” but they want to see meaningful action to improve the economy. He said, “I believe the economy will turn around.”

Also at the press event, state Rep. Jerry McPeak of Warner said many members want to “do the budget and then go home.” He suggested money saved through a shortened session could be devoted to public safety and education purposes.

In a statement prepared before the press conference, Sen. Garrison said, “For months legislative leaders have said we need to tighten our belts, just like Oklahoma families, and I couldn’t agree more, and one way to do that is by cutting session short.” He continued, “people are tired of Legislators doing nothing while their families are hurting and this sends the right message that we want to get our job done in an efficient manner.”

Garrison specified the senior nutrition program, facing mandatory allocation cuts since October, as a potential beneficiary of the savings from a shortened session: “Seniors are hurting and they are hungry and we have to find a way to fund this life-saving service to our greatest generation.”

Those joining the Garrison-Rice press conference included (partial listing) Sen. Johnny Crutchfield, Debbe Leftwich of Oklahoma City, Judy Eason-McIntyre of Tulsa, along with Rep. McPeak and Reps. Mike Shelton of Oklahoma City, Ed Cannaday of Porum, and Paul Roan of Tishomingo.