Several of Tulsa's state lawmakers, along with other legislators, are urging caution after Gov. Brad Henry recently made several proposals for new spending in his annual State of the State address.
"Building on Oklahoma's momentum for its second century of statehood" was a central theme of the discourse. Along with outlining several of his proposals to that end, the governor also kicked off this year's legislative session by calling on lawmakers to set partisanship aside lest it impede that momentum, alluding to the delicate and historic balance of power that resulted from the latest election.
Though a Democrat remains in the governor's office, Republicans remain in control of the House of Representatives witht the Senate is split down the middle between the two parties, leading many to expect a political logjam for the next two years, with neither side holding the upper hand.
"There are some skeptics who predict little of worth will come from this legislative session. They expect to see only political gamesmanship and partisan bickering. But I don't believe that, and I hope you don't either," said Henry to his packed audience of state lawmakers and citizens. "Divisiveness destroys success, and too much is at stake for us to surrender to the pitfalls of partisanship. There is no glory in gridlock, but the rewards of working together-- of joining forces on behalf of our fellow Oklahomans-- are truly without limit.
"On the cusp of our state's second century, we gather here, chosen by the people of Oklahoma to chart a course for our future - a course not solely for the coming legislative session, but for the next 100 years," the governor continued. "Just as our adventurous pioneer spirit characterized Oklahoma's first century, so, too, will today's actions bring shape and definition to Oklahoma's second century... Now is the time to build on our momentum."
Some of Henry's proposals for building on that momentum include:
--Guaranteeing early childhood education for three-year-olds at a cost of $15 million, which would be matched by Tulsa's Kaiser Foundation.
--Establishing a permanent source of funding for the Oklahoma Higher Learning Access Program at a cost of $36 million this year.
--Raising teachers' pay by $50 million.
--Increasing Medicaid eligibility to cover 42,000 more children at a cost of $8.6 million
--Expanding eligibility for the Insure Oklahoma program to cover up to 118,000 Oklahomans.
--Allowing Oklahomans to buy re-imported prescription drugs from Canada and other industrialized nations.
--Issuing bonds of up to $75 million to leverage matching private donations to fund endowed chairs.
--Issuing bonds of up to $200 million for the Opportunity Fund.
--Using surplus revenues to make "significant deposits" into the Opportunity and EDGE Funds.
--Establishing a Web site by which Oklahomans can see how tax dollars are spent.
--Punishing non-violent offenders "in a more effective way" to prevent recidivism, including treatment programs and requiring restitution.
Proceed with Caution?
Thirty-two minutes of oration and 24 pauses for applause later, responses to Henry's speech were mixed, despite his calls for a bipartisan rallying under the banner of progress for Oklahoma. Henry's fellow Democrats were generally supportive, but Republicans found little to rally behind.
"We appreciate the positive tone and the spirit of bipartisanship," said Senate Co-President Pro Tempore Glenn Coffee, R-Oklahoma City, when he appeared with House Speaker Lance Cargill to comment on the governor's address.
Both lawmakers took issue with Henry's spending proposals, however, characterizing them as "ambitious."
"I hope he's not biting off more than taxpayers can chew," said Cargill, R-Harrah.
Both GOP leaders said one proposal in particular was "an eyebrow raiser" for them.
"One thing that stuck out to me was his idea to mortgage our children's future with several hundred dollars in bonds," said Coffee.
Coffee and Cargill were not alone in their criticism of the proposed bond issues. Tulsa Republican and appropriations honcho Rep. Chris Benge and Owasso Republican Sen. Randy Brogdon also spoke out.
"It's not all for bricks and mortar; some of this is for operating costs. We've never borrowed money for ongoing expenses," said Benge.
Benge explained that there are other proposed bond issues in Henry's budget request that he did not directly address in his State of the State speech, all of which total $600 million.
"That's $500-600 million in new debt," said Brogdon. "I'm not going to support anything that's going to put my kids in debt."
Brogdon took issue with numerous other proposals, as well as the governor's overall approach.
"His overall plan is what he's been doing for the last four years," he said. "He's decided to grow the government at a phenomenal rate, but I saw very little in his speech that will help the economy."
Benge summed up his response to the governor's address as a "message of caution on the budget."
"The governor has proposed a tremendous amount of new spending, and I have concerns about his revenue projections -- the lottery is already below projections," he said.
Coffee said he is concerned that the governor's spending proposals don't take into account that the economy might slow down soon.
"There are a number of the governor's programs that still aren't funded, and this makes no sense when there are warning signs all around" that the economy is due to slow down, he said "We don't need new programs at the expense of existing programs."
"It's very necessary that we proceed cautiously," said Benge. "We've experienced tremendous growth in revenue in recent years, but we expect that that's going to slow down at some point."
In addition to their criticism of Henry's spending proposals, Brogdon, Cargill and Coffee each also expressed concern that he made no mention of immigration reform, tax relief or lawsuit reform in his address-- all of which are top priorities for Republicans.
Benge pointed out that, not only does Henry's budget proposal not take into account a possible downturn in the economy, but it would also preclude the possibility of tax relief if it were adopted.
One element of Henry's address that met with their approval, though, was his proposal to establish a Web site to track government spending.
Brogdon recently proposed the Taxpayer Transparency Act to accomplish just that. It's modeled after the recently enacted Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act of 2006 (S. 2590), which was authored by Oklahoma's Republican U.S. Sen Tom Coburn and Illinois Democratic Sen. Barack Obama.
Brogdon said he has no idea, however, if the governor had his bill in mind or a similar proposal by Sen. Jay Paul Gumm, D-Durant. (Brogdon's measure would make each and every expenditure of state funds open to public scrutiny, while Gumm's would only require expenditures over $25,000 be posted on the site, and would exclude business tax incentives.)
"It may be possible that he was referring to Senator Gumm's bill, since he's a Democrat, but just the fact that he's supporting openness in government is a huge step in the right direction," said Brogdon.
Another Tulsa native echoed some of Brogdon, Benge and other Republicans' concerns.
"I'd have an overall tone of caution," said Democratic state Sen. Tom Adelson about some of Henry's spending proposals.
Adelson was not as outspoken about the governors' pitch for $600 million in bonds, but was somewhat cool toward the proposal nonetheless.
"I'd want to make sure we meet our infrastructure needs first; education, health care, and roads and bridges are, for me, a higher priority, and I would like to see those areas funded. At the same time, I want to support the governor," he said.
Prior to his career in the state Legislature, Adelson served as Henry's Secretary of Health. He co-chairs the Appropriations Subcommittee on Health and Social Services and was a principal architect of last year's Medicaid Reform Act.
Concerning the State of the State address, he said, "On health care initiatives, I was impressed, especially making sure all kids are covered under Medicaid. I appreciate his leadership."
While he echoes his GOP colleagues' exhortations to fiscal responsibility, Adelson said Henry's health care initiatives should not require any new spending.
The Insure Oklahoma program, he said, is funded through tobacco tax revenues and funds from the tobacco settlement trust, which are sufficient to cover its expansion. Adelson said children's health care could also be funded from these sources.
While he is optimistic about the governor's health care proposals, the Democrat from Tulsa predicted a lean future for other areas of funding. Citing a study recently completed by Dr. Kent Olson, Professor of Economics for Oklahoma State University, Adelson said he expects there to be more than $20 billion in structural deficits in Oklahoma over the next 30 years.
Rather than blaming reckless spending on the governor's part, though, Adelson said the culprit is tax cuts.
"One of the main causes is from the 2004 and 2006 tax cuts," he said. "I voted for the tax cuts, so I'm responsible too, but it's an economic fact that this is what we'll see when we absorb the full impact of those tax cuts."
"If we want to continue our current level of service, we have a find a way to do that," Adelson continued. "We have enough for 2007, but not for the next several years."
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