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Oklahoma's budget dealmaking just starting

Oklahoma's budget dealmaking just starting

Associated Press

By RON JENKINS , 05.04.09, 09:47 AM EDT

Three weeks away from a self-imposed adjournment deadline, the Oklahoma Legislature is just now getting down to dealmaking with the governor on a slimmed-down state budget.

Leaders of the Republican majorities in the House and Senate reached agreements last week on budget parameters that will mean significant budget cutting for general government agencies.

While details have not been announced, leaders said federal stimulus dollars will save public schools from the budget ax, while shoring up funding for the state Medicaid program and bolstering highway construction.

"I think you'll see close to a break-even budget for education when the stimulus money is factored in," said Senate President Pro Tem Glenn Coffee, R-Oklahoma City.

Other agencies will not be as fortunate and could face cuts in the range of 8 percent to 9 percent, said Rep. Ken Miller, R-Edmond, House appropriations chairman.

"I think it will be in the single digits. I don't think it will be in double digits, 10 or 12 percent," Coffee said.

Heading into negotiations with key officials in the governor's office, namely state Treasurer Scott Meacham, the budget-cutting was placed in the $500 million range, Miller said.

The use of $105 million in discretionary funds under the control of Democratic Gov. Brad Henry could soften the blow somewhat. Budget-writers also are using cash reserves, but most of it is believed to be built into the legislative plan.

Meacham said a lot of work still needs to be done. "They delivered their budget proposal to us Thursday and we're still studying it. We'll of course have a counter proposal at some point, but it's way too premature to discuss details of that."

Figuring out how more than $2 billion of federal stimulus funds can be used to offset budget woes has been blamed for a slowdown in the budget process.

Coffee, however, said: "I don't think there has been a delay." He said it is "a reasonable goal" for lawmakers and the governor's office to reach a final budget accord by the end of this week, setting the stage for an early adjournment.

Meacham had no prediction on timing, but said he expects the final budget "will be far different" from the one developed by lawmakers.

A year ago, the legislative leaders bragged about giving the Department of Corrections enough money to avoid the agency having to seek an emergency appropriation in February to pay running prisons for 12 months.

However, Miller said the agency is facing a cut this year and "it will be difficult" for the DOC to pay all of its bills for the full fiscal year that begins July 1. Coffee said he wants the reduction to be as small as possible.

What the budget cuts will mean in terms of state employee reductions is still a question.

The Oklahoma Public Employees Association is calling on lawmakers to implement a mandatory plan to reduce agency costs to preserve jobs and vital services.

"Any discretionary spending should be frozen across state government, including education, contracts and travel," said Sterling Zearley, OPEA executive director.

He said the state workers' union has been besieged with telephone calls by state workers worried about job security.

"I just want to make sure that they look at every option with these agencies such as travel and training to make sure they cut those things first before they look at cutting positions or services."

He said state agencies "are pretty lean and are doing a good job with the funding they have," but have been set back by increases in insurance costs that have not been accounted for in appropriations the last several years.

At the first of the year, Henry said writing the budget would overshadow the session, but most of the session has involved fighting between Republicans and Democrats over such things as insurance mandates, proposed civil justice system changes and social issues.

In February, the official revenue estimate showed lawmakers would have more than $600 million less to spend than the $7 billion budget appropriated in 2008. The budget shortfall, however, was said to be closer to $900 million, mainly because of the loss of one-time revenue sources and commitments already in law.

The House and Senate have adopted resolutions to adjourn by May 22. Under the Oklahoma Constitution, lawmakers could work until 5 p.m. on the last Friday in May, which is May 29.

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