‘Wistful’ Brad Henry applauds ‘bipartisan budget’ in ‘difficult time’

By Patrick B. McGuigan

Published: 30-May-2010

In a press conference at the state Capitol’s Blue Room, Oklahoma Governor Brad Henry told reporters on Friday (May 28) he has “been a bit wistful during the last several weeks. This is my last legislative session. I love this job. Working for and on behalf of the people of Oklahoma is the greatest job in the world.”

After 20 years at the Capitol (12 in the Legislature and eight as chief executive of the state), the popular Democrat said, “Kim and I will miss this daily work for Oklahoma, but we are at peace with ourselves. I believe that Oklahoma has a great future. I certainly plan to continue in some capacity or another to serve the people of Oklahoma.”

Concerning what his adviser Scott Meacham has characterized as the worst revenue crunch in modern Oklahoma history, Henry said, “When I entered office as governor in 2003, we had the largest budget gap in state history up to that point, and now we’ve ended with an even larger and more challenging budget gap. Let me just say I am very proud of the way legislators worked together in this difficult time.”

Henry continued, “I want to say a special word about President Pro Tem Glenn Coffee and Speaker Chris Benge. They are Republicans and I am a Democrat. That did not matter one bit when it came to dealing with this serious fiscal challenge. At all times in even this most challenging situation they behaved with great care. Our discussions were always cordial and through it all we remained friends. They are true consummate professionals who care about this state. I have appreciated the time they devoted to service and the work that we all did together.”

Asked to characterize the legislative session, which was in its final 90 minutes as Henry spoke to reporters, “It was very difficult and challenging, but we were able to shield core public services from the deepest cuts. I would rather have not had to cut any of those core services, and would have preferred not to cut the services provided by other agencies. We had very difficult choices, no easy choices at all. We made tough decisions and did it all without increasing taxes. That was a good achievement. I’m proud of how we got through the session, and proud of the budget we finished. It is a bipartisan budget that will be helpful to taking the state forward.”

Several reporters questioned whether the revenue enhancement measures would actually net as much for state coffers as hoped. The governor replied, “We were very conservative. We worked within the numbers we hope these changes will produce, and in every case I am aware of, listed the amount anticipated as less than what we actually hope to gain. We were careful.

“I believe we came together and found some $300 million in revenue enhancements this session. That involved working with the Speaker, the President Pro Tem and of course Treasurer Scott Meacham. I’m pretty confident we will more than cover the budget.”

CapitolBeatOK asked if that meant he intended to sign “all the pieces of the budget headed toward you now.” Gov. Henry answered, “I think so, yes. I always reserve the right to change my mind after studying the bills line by line. For the most part all the pieces we agreed to in last week’s meetings have been approved now [Friday afternoon] by the Legislature. I anticipate no vetoes on budget matters.”

He added, “There might be some other bill or bills that I’ll need to veto. On workers comp, that and other bills will be reviewed to make sure that from my point of view there are no errors or mistakes. But on that and most things there is basic agreement. When the Republicans first made their proposal on Senate confirmation of judges, I said I do not think that is a good idea. I am concerned that the judges can become too political. But they brought some new elements, and settled on one 8-year term for workers’ comp judges. I’ll be reviewing it.”

Asked specifically about Internet tax enforcement and other issues, Henry said, “I believe everything we settled on won approval, and I believe we stayed on track. On the budget and on revenues, there were a couple of measures that didn’t get the emergency provision, but waiting 90 days on those shouldn’t cause any problems as far as I can tell at this point.”

Pressed for a response, the governor also commented on abortion-related bills. He said, “I never want to point fingers. The Legislature has a right to pass bills the members believe are good laws in the public interest. The governor can sign or veto, doing what he or she believes is right.”

He continued, “I signed four of the anti-abortion laws, and I vetoed four. I think I am right down the middle, where most Oklahomans are. The highest court in the land has said that this is a protected right, and that some limits on abortion are unconstitutional. On this or any other law, I’ll veto things I believe are unconstitutional.’

Reflecting on other matters of states’ rights, he said, “There has been some commentary that there were a lot more of these state’s rights issues and other challenging matters. I don’t know if it’s a trend or not. Certainly the Tea Party movement shows there is concern. It may simply be because Republicans have taken control of the Legislature. They are concerned about these issues and that’s just the way it is. I tend to be kind of centrist, middle of the road, in my views. I think most Oklahomans are in the same place. I assess every piece of legislation on its own merits.”

He added, “On the last abortion veto, I am a little surprised that it wasn’t overriden days ago.” The Legislature never finished considering his veto of a proposal to ban state funding for abortion coverage under the new federal health care bill. 

Concerning measures to freeze off news media access to birth dates and other public records, Gov. Henry commented, “I believe that basic information like birthdays has been and needs to be an open record, so I’m not at all sure about that.”

The future of pro-business tax credits and exemptions was put in doubt this session. Gov. Henry said, “We probably need to get the right group of smart minds together to look at every single tax credit on the books, all the exemptions. The idea of course is to incentivize behavior and encourage economic activity that would not otherwise occur.

‘A concern is that some of these credits or incentives have become entitlements. There are a lot of credits on the books. I just don’t know if all of them are good. Then you have the challenge of confidentiality of these credits, that you can’t get information from the Tax Commission about who is using them, and how much they are worth. If they’re not bringing new economic activity, it’s a taxpayer giveaway.”

Discussing potential budget “holes” left by the late changes in some tax credit programs, Henry commented, “We left $100 million in the rainy day fund … plus the $360 million we are leaving in cash flow. I believe the savings and other initiatives, and higher revenues will close much of the gap. I believe the economy is turning around. I believe we have left a good foundation.

“It would have been irresponsible to cause damage to the services infrastructure or to have cuts that left behind damage that was irreparable in areas like education, transportation and public safety.”

A late proposal, backed by the governor and both Republican legislative leaders, was made to consolidate some state agency functions. The measure failed in the Legislature. Gov. Henry commented, “I believe some consolidation of agencies is a very appropriate policy to pursue, but that it proved very difficult to achieve politically and practically.”