OKLAHOMA CITY — Oklahoma Republicans on Tuesday heralded a historic $12.8 billion budget agreement that pumps hundreds of millions more into public schools and increases funding to most state agencies.
The budget, the largest in state history, represents about a 32% increase in appropriations over the current year’s $9.7 billion budget. It comes during a time when lawmakers had a $1.2 billion surplus to allocate.
The budget earmarks about $11.3 billion for state agencies and includes over $1 billion in one-time appropriations for things like capital investments, economic incentives and state facility upgrades.
“I think it meets a lot of needs for the state, and so hopefully it’s going to pass and do good for the state of Oklahoma,” said State Sen. Roger Thompson, R-Okemah, who helped write the budget.
He said House Bill 1004 focuses on helping those that “are most vulnerable,” and Thompson touted the Legislature’s plan to increase to education spending by $785.3 million, or by about 25%.
The budget also includes funding to:
• Boost juror pay from $20 to $50 per day.
• Create an affordable housing program that offers homebuilders loans with interest rates starting at 0%.
• Continue lawmakers’ commitment to clear a decade-long wait list for Oklahomans with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
• Provide state support for OETA, Oklahoma’s public television station.
• Provide increased funding for wildfire and drought relief.
• Fund an Oklahoma State University veterinarian medicine hospital.
• Create a grant program to help health care providers afford the cost of connecting to the state’s new Health Information Exchange (HIE).
While the vast majority of state agencies will receive increases, Democratic senators noted that some were excluded. Lawmakers, for instance, chose not to expand the budget of the state’s Ethics Commission, which is tasked with policing legislators, and also slashed Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs funding by almost 63%. They also noted there is also no funding set aside for the state’s Oklahoma Pandemic Center for Innovation and Excellence in Stillwater.
State Rep. Carl Newton, R-Cherokee, said the budget represents a compromise, but overall he’s pleased with it and believes “it’s pretty well-rounded.”
“Overall, I think it’s a good budget, and it’ll help Oklahoma move forward,” Newton said.
He said he likes the funding emphasis on improving third-grade reading outcomes and the large increase in education funding, and said the budget focuses on ensuring rural communities receive needed funding.
Newton also said he likes that the budget creates a grant program to help health care providers afford the HIE transition. That guarantees health care providers won’t have a “huge outlay of money” to participate. He said providers would otherwise be required to pay $5,000 apiece, which is a lot of money for single practitioners.
Supporters have said the statewide database will modernize the state’s health care record-keeping system to help improve continuity of care between providers, but health care providers were concerned that the state’s Health Care Authority planned to put the onus on paying for the system on them.
State Rep. Jacob Rosecrants, D-Norman, said while the budget plan includes some positives — like teacher raises ranging from $3,000 to $6,000, depending on experience — it falls short of expectations. He said Republicans excluded Democrats from the budget process.
Because Democrats primarily represent Oklahomans living in the state’s biggest cities and metropolitan areas, urban constituents were left without a voice in the budget process.
He said he’ll vote against the plan on “principle.”
“You are not including our voices,” Rosecrants said. “This is the capital of Oklahoma, not the capital of Republican Oklahoma.”
Rosecrants said he’s also concerned that a temporary funding initiative to increase school security also doesn’t address the ongoing “crisis” of the shortage of psychologists and counselors in schools. That is a part of school security too, he said.
“What I think would be better for the budget, in general, is if it was one big picture – if we really did include not just certain folks in the room, but representatives from folks all over the state,” Rosecrants said.
Lawmakers have until Friday to adjourn the legislative session, but can take up budget-related issues during special session later this year.
Janelle Stecklein covers the Oklahoma Statehouse for CNHI’s newspapers and websites. Reach her at email@example.com.
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