- Associated Press - Saturday, December 19, 2015

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) - Republicans in the House and Senate have met separately to line up priorities for the upcoming legislative session that begins in February, and one topic is dominating the conversation: the $1 billion hole in next year’s state budget that likely will force deep cuts to public schools and other state services.

House Republicans met last week in Fairview, the hometown of House Speaker Jeff Hickman, to review details of the budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1. Early projections show lawmakers will have at least $900 million, or 13 percent, less to spend than it did on the current budget. But that number will grow to about $1.1 billion when adjusted for sources of one-time money that were used to plug holes in the current budget.

Senate Republicans met late last month and also focused primarily on the budget, said Senate President Pro Tem Brian Bingman.

“Really the budget is going to overshadow everything,” said Bingman, R-Sapulpa. “Can there be budget reforms so we don’t go through these crises continually?”

Other priorities for the House GOP caucus next year will be reviewing new public education standards that are being developed after scrapping Common Core standards and voting on a bond issue to complete repairs to the state Capitol, Hickman said.

Hickman said most House members knew when they approved a $120 million bond issue last year that additional funding would be needed, and a bond issue for an additional $120 million that contractors say they need to complete the project will likely be on the docket. However, $65 million for visionary plans like a reflecting pool and giant stone arch would likely need to be privately funded, Hickman said.

“We had a lot of discussion, but no plan right now,” Hickman said, noting that any new bond issue would be set up to take effect after existing bonds are paid off.

The House and Senate GOP caucuses also discussed rolling back some of the hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of tax incentives and breaks handed out to various industries every year, along with off-the-top money, which is diverted directly to things like schools, scholarships and road construction that don’t get appropriated by the Legislature.

For the 30-member Democrat contingent in the House, Leader Scott Inman said he they’ll find common ground on additional funding for the Capitol and targeting some tax credits. He said they’ll also seek a repeal of a second proposed cut in the individual income tax rate in 2018 that would drop the rate further from 5 percent to 4.85 percent.

“It’s maddening to me to think that the first time in state history we’ll cut income taxes at a time when we have a budget deficit,” said Inman, D-Del City.

Both the House and Senate GOP caucuses also are expected to have votes in May to elect new leaders since both Hickman and Bingman are term-limited and can’t run for re-election in 2016.

Rep. Leslie Osborn, R-Mustang, confirmed Friday she is no longer in the speaker’s race and has decided to back state Rep. Charles McCall, a second-term Republican from Atoka. Also running for the post are Reps. John Bennett, R-Sallisaw, Scott Martin, R-Norman, and Earl Sears, R-Bartlesville.

In the Senate, Majority Floor Leader Mike Schulz, R-Altus, said he planned to seek the pro tem’s post for the last two years before he is term-limited.

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Follow Sean Murphy at www.twitter.com/apseanmurphy

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