- Associated Press - Friday, May 27, 2016

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) - The Oklahoma Legislature adjourned Friday after passing a $6.8 billion budget that will require most state agencies to absorb deeper cuts to deal with the remaining shortfall.

House Appropriations and Budget Committee Chairman Earl Sears said there would be no further cuts to public K-12 schools and Medicaid provider rates beyond the ones lawmakers approved earlier.

However, most other state agencies will have to reduce spending to deal with the remaining $360 million budget gap. The shortage had been $1.3 billion before the Legislature approved various measures to raise revenue.

The House voted 52-45 for a bill funding such state services as public safety, education and health for the fiscal year that begins July 1. The Senate, which adjourned earlier Friday, approved the bill on Wednesday, and Gov. Mary Fallin is expected to sign it.

Under the budget plan, public schools will receive $2.42 billion next year, slightly more than this year’s education budget revision following a revenue failure earlier this year that left schools with about 2 percent less than their original appropriation.

The agreement taps about $144 million from the state’s Rainy Day Fund, leaving the state’s emergency fund with a balance of about $241 million.

The bill cuts the budgets of funding for colleges and universities by about $153 million, raising the possibility of steep tuition hikes.

“I do believe there will be some substantial raises in tuition,” Sears said. He said tuition increases could strain working families and urged universities to exercise restraint when deciding how high to raise tuition.

University of Oklahoma President David Boren has called the higher education cuts “deeply disappointing.” Boren said the cuts “will further erode Oklahoma’s future and opportunity for economic growth and jobs for our people.”

Boren is spearheading a proposed 1 percent increase in the state sales tax that, if approved by voters in November, would generate an additional $615 million annually for education, including about $120 million for colleges and universities.

Opponents complained that the budget bill reduces funding for services for the poor and elderly and urged its defeat so lawmakers could return to the Capitol in June for a special session to complete the budget.

“We continue to divest in our citizens, and we need to do the opposite,” said Rep. Jason Dunnington, D-Oklahoma City. “I believe in a better Oklahoma.”

Throughout the debate, Republicans chided the Democratic minority and accused it of standing in the way of revenue raising measures to help support the budget, including a proposed $1.50 increase in the tax on a pack of cigarettes that would have raised about $180 million a year.

House Democrats said they won’t support the tax until Republicans agree to some version of Medicaid expansion that would allow Oklahoma to tap into hundreds of millions of dollars available to states through the Affordable Care Act.

“The big ticket items you could have done to put money in this budget, you didn’t support,” Sears said during discussion of the budget with Democratic leader Scott Inman of Oklahoma City. Inman said Democrats supported about $250 million in revenue raising measures, including capping or eliminating some tax credits and exemptions.

Democrats accused Republicans of contributing to the budget shortfall by supporting a series of income tax cuts in recent years, including one that went into effect in January that reduced the top rate from 5.25 percent to 5 percent.

“It’s a disgrace. We can do a better job,” said Rep. Richard Morrissette. The Oklahoma City Democrat said the Legislature’s Republican majority is “starving government.”

The budget proposal authorizes a $200 million bond issue to pay for road and bridge construction, freeing up $200 million to fund general state operations instead of earmarking it specifically for transportation. The Senate approved final passage of the bond proposal earlier Friday.

Rep. Eric Proctor, a Tulsa Democrat, said Republican budget writers are practicing “Washington-style budgeting” by going into debt to balance the budget.

“This budget is a disgusting disgrace to the people of Oklahoma,” Proctor said.

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