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Benge gloomy on state's finances

Benge gloomy on state's finances

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by: RANDY KREHBIEL

Tulsa World Staff Writer
Thursday, November 19, 2009
11/19/2009 3:57:13 AM

Legislators fear that "we may be boxing ourselves in" by not dealing more aggressively with dramatic revenue shortfalls, House Speaker Chris Benge said Wednesday.

Speaking a day after Gov. Brad Henry announced a three-point plan to address the widening budget gap, Benge, R-Tulsa, said legislative leaders would continue to work with Henry but that it is time to "interject some reality" into the situation.

"I felt like the governor and Treasurer (Scott) Meacham are taking a too optimistic view," Benge said. "We may be looking at a $1 billion shortfall. I hope we're not, but if you project it out, that's what it would be."

He said he believes that it would be "prudent" to cut state spending more than the 5 percent already ordered by the Office of State Finance.

"If we put it off," he said, "it's going to make it more painful later on."

General revenue fund collections for the first four months of the fiscal year that began July 1 are nearly 25 percent less than projections and nearly 30 percent less than the total of the previous year.

The response to those shortfalls has been 5 percent across-the-board reductions in monthly allocations and temporary fund transfers that have to be repaid before the fiscal year ends on June 30.

Benge said the practice is essentially committing money from the state's $600 million constitutional reserve fund without the consent of the Legislature.

"We've become increasingly uncomfortable that we are boxing ourselves in," he said.

Nevertheless, Benge said, a special session to deal with the budget would have little value until mid- to late-December, when the first preliminary revenue estimates for fiscal year 2011 are issued.

"We need to know how big the hole is, and we need to know something about 2011," he said.

Benge disagreed with Meacham's assessment that the state's economy has bottomed out.

Pointing to an Oklahoma State University report issued Tuesday, Benge said he sees no reason to expect state revenues to recover this year or even next.

Benge acknowledged that some legislators might view the situation as a chance to eliminate some elements of state government.

"This is definitely an opportunity to reassess," he said. "It's not necessarily anything anyone is getting delight out of. It may be we'll look at some programs that in the past have been off limits."

Benge said he hopes that steps will be taken to better level out fluctuations in state revenue and that he thinks increasing the cap on the reserve fund "will be part of a serious discussion."

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