Oklahoma’s Constitution establishes the first day of the Legislative session as the first Monday in February and mandates all work, including writing and passing a balanced budget, must be concluded no later than 5 p.m. on the last Friday in May. Between the House and the Senate, more than 2000 pieces of legislation were filed ahead of the 2017 session. We also learned in late December we’d be facing a budget shortfall of about $870 million. With week one of the session behind us, that leaves just 15 more to get everything done—I’d say we have our work cut out for us.
Each session always begins with the governor’s State of the State address and the release of the executive budget. This gives the governor an opportunity to present her policy and budget priorities and recommendations for the session. It doesn’t mean we will pass every bill she supports or create a budget that exactly mirrors hers—but it’s a starting point for discussions and deliberations to determine what ideas will work best for our state, and for the citizens we each represent.
Governor Fallin called for passage of a teacher pay raise, as well as additional funding for higher education to make sure more Oklahomans have the degrees needed to fill jobs in critical areas. She called for more funding for a trooper academy, discussed the need to address Oklahoma’s continued prison overcrowding and the need to improve our state’s health. These are areas where there is a tremendous amount of common ground, but given the budget situation, the question is how to pay for them.
The governor proposed nearly $1 billion in tax increases. This includes removing the current sales tax exemption for scores of services, raising taxes on gasoline and diesel fuel, and hiking the cigarette tax. She also called for ending the corporate income tax and the state sales tax on groceries.
To be frank, many of these proposals face an uphill battle. Bills raising revenue must start in the House of Representatives, and must be approved by a super-majority, or 75 percent of the Legislature. That will not be an easy task.
Prior to the beginning of session, the Senate Republican Caucus released our 2017 agenda. We want to balance the budget in a way to mitigate the effect of the budget cuts to the greatest extent possible. Beyond raising taxes, there are other ways to produce additional revenue for the fiscal year 2018 budget and for future budget years. Apportionment reform must be a part of the discussion. Right now, legislators can only appropriate less than half of all state revenue because of “off-the-top” funding. We need greater flexibility to prioritize dollars as needed.
Last year we enacted several measures to reform certain tax preferences—there’s more we can do in this area. These credits were originally enacted to help create jobs and boost our economy. If a credit costs more than it generates, then it shouldn’t just continue to stay on the books. I think we also have a responsibility to continue to push agencies to identify additional efficiencies to make tax dollars go farther.
In the coming weeks and months, I will be working closely with my fellow members in the Senate, the House and with the governor’s staff to develop a budget and determine which bills will best help us create a stronger, more prosperous state. I also value your input, and I thank you for entrusting me to be your voice in the State Senate for another four years.
To contact me at the Capitol, please write to Senator Rob Standridge, State Capitol, 2300 N. Lincoln Blvd. Room 417A, Oklahoma City, OK, 73105, email me at email@example.com, or call (405) 521-5535.