Putting together a budget at a time when the state faces a budget shortfall of about $600 million will be the most critical task legislators will undertake this session, Gov. Brad Henry says. Legislators return today for the first session of the 52nd Legislature.
“This is going to be a very difficult and challenging legislative session because of the fiscal environment that we find ourselves in,” he said. “Also, there is a national and international economic crisis that certainly is affecting Oklahoma.”
Henry said he will rely on his skills at bringing both sides together, as he did six years ago when the state faced a much stiffer budget challenge, to work out differences.
“In the end, the budget will overshadow all issues,” Henry said. “It will be very difficult to come up with new dollars for new programs or expanded programs. It will be a tough and very difficult year for our agencies.”
The state faced a more serious shortfall six years ago — Henry’s first year in office — when the shortfall was $700 million, or about 15 percent of the state’s $5 billion budget, and the Rainy Day Fund contained about $70 million. Today, the shortfall is about 8 percent of the state’s estimated $6.8 billion budget and the Rainy Day Fund, the state’s savings account, is full with nearly $600 million.
Legislators and the governor cut programs and services in 2003, but were able to balance the budget without increasing taxes. Henry said the same can be accomplished this year, but without taking money from the Rainy Day Fund; legislators six years ago drained all but about $100,000 from the fund.
“My goal this year is to bring again everyone together — legislative leaders in both parties — and craft a consensus budget … that will utilize surgical cuts and other efficiencies and we’ll protect priority areas,” He said.
It’s his goal to protect education, health care and public safety from cuts, the governor said. His budget, which he will present to legislators today, won’t call for across-the-board cuts. He’s interested in savings the state can achieve through changing purchasing and Internet services procedures, which a House committee estimates could save Oklahoma tens of millions of dollars.
“It is critical that we preserve the Rainy Day Fund because we just don’t know how this economy is going to pan out over the next couple of years and the effect that it will have on Oklahoma’s revenues,” Henry said. “It’s prudent to preserve the Rainy Day Fund and make sure that we have that available if revenues actually worsen over the course of the next year or so.”
- Michael McNutt, Capitol Bureau