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Okla. Legislators, Governor Reach Deal on Budget

Kurt Gwartney

Lawmakers have until the end of this month to complete their work, including the passing of a state budget. The adjournment date might come sooner with the announcement of an agreement on how to spend the state’s money.

The budget to pay for Oklahoma’s government will be $7.1 billion for the fiscal year beginning July 1, under an agreement between Gov. Mary Fallin and legislative leaders. For most state agencies the amount of money they’ll receive in the new budget year is the same as last, but Fallin says the largest increase in the budget is for public schools in Oklahoma.

“Our budget includes an additional $91 million for common education this year,” Fallin says. “That also includes $17 million in supplemental [funds] for the fiscal year 2013 for teachers’ health benefits, as well as $74 million for FY 2014.”

A statement from State Superintendent Janet Barresi said while she appreciates the priority lawmakers placed on public schools, the money is not enough to meet the needs of schools or the growing number of students.

Speaking to reporters just before the release of the budget agreement yesterday, House Minority Leader Scott Inman (D-Del City) says the amount of school funding will mean a deeper fiscal hole for districts.

“Under the current state of affairs with nearly $100 million potentially lost in the intangible property tax situation, common education needed this year close to a minimum of $100 million just to stay level,” Inman says.

Higher Education receives $33 million with CareerTech getting $3 million.

Fallin had pushed for more money to treat Oklahomans with addictions, and the new agreement meets her request.

“Today’s agreement includes $17.4 million for the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services to help us address the ever-increasing rise of prescription drug abuse in our state, for prevention, and for treatment,” Fallin says.

While public safety is always included in the list of core state functions when discussing the budget, both the Department of Public Safety and Department of Corrections did not receive any additional funds. For the state’s prison system, that snub comes after revelations that it was not up front with the amount of money it had set aside in certain accounts. State Rep. Scott Martin (R-Norman) chairs the House Budget Committee.

“Particularly in our caucus we’ve had a lot of people who’ve been very interested in DOC,” Martin says. “While they are a critical function of state government, with the recent news that’s been in the paper recently, they do have some revolving funds that are going to be looked at a little more diligently.  With that, we didn’t feel like it would be prudent to go ahead give them increased appropriation right now.”

The lack of more spending on public safety did not stop the House and Senate from giving itself an additional $7 million dollars in the budget. Most of that money will go to renovate office space in the state Capitol opened up after Oklahoma’s highest courts moved into their own building. State Sen. Clark Jolley (R-Edmond) says the space needs work.

“Rather than use money that should go to outside infrastructure, we’re going ahead and we’re showing we’re going to pay for renovation to make that court space available,” Jolley says.

The budget plan must now be drafted into a bill, approved by the Republican-controlled Legislature and then sent to the governor. House Minority Leader Inman says despite the majority of GOP members, the fight isn’t over.

Overall, the new agreement increases spending by nearly $270 million dollars over the current year's budget.

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