- Associated Press - Saturday, January 31, 2015

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) - With sliding oil prices expected to deepen a $300 million hole in next year’s budget, Oklahoma lawmakers will have to be creative as they attempt to balance a growing list of demands for state resources with a dwindling amount of available revenue.

The first session of the 55th Oklahoma Legislature begins on Monday, when Gov. Mary Fallin will unveil her executive budget proposal and deliver her State of the State Address to members of the GOP-controlled House and Senate. Fallin has said education, health care and public safety will be her priorities for the upcoming session, but finding the money to pay for those things won’t be easy.

During a speech last week to reporters and editors at The Associated Press’ annual legislative forum, Fallin said an estimated $900 million in unencumbered funds in various state agency revolving accounts could be used to help close the budget gap.

She also urged the Legislature to consider more closely scrutinizing hundreds of tax credits and incentives that cost the state hundreds of millions of dollars in lost revenue each year. Her suggestion that legislators have a budget-only session every other year, where they don’t consider policy initiatives, also appears to be gaining support from Republicans and Democrats.

“I think it’s very important if we want to prioritize our money and steer it toward areas really important to our state, then we need to focus on knowing the budget very well,” Fallin said.

Fallin is preparing her executive budget proposal with about $300 million less than the $7.2 million the Legislature appropriated last year. The final amount certified for lawmakers to spend will happen next month, and depressed oil prices are expected to make the hole even larger.

“I fully expect it to probably be less than it was in November,” said Senate President Pro Tempore Brian Bingman, R-Sapulpa.

Bingman said he too supports developing a system for analyzing the effectiveness and potential cost of tax credits, and that he also is challenging the members of appropriation subcommittees to more closely scrutinize agency budgets.

“Let’s not be an advocate for the agencies,” Bingman said. “If you’re a subcommittee chairman, you’re supposed to be challenging these agencies and making sure they’re efficient and making good decisions about how we deal with the state-appropriated dollars.”

Democratic leaders in the House and Senate expressed a willingness to work with Republicans to find common ground, especially in areas like improving funding for education and health care and addressing the state’s overcrowded prison system through criminal justice reforms.

But House Minority Leader Rep. Scott Inman, D-Oklahoma City, said his caucus stands ready to oppose any Republican-backed initiatives that don’t help middle-class families.

“Every single piece of legislation that comes to our desk will be measured with the yardstick of: Is it good for the middle class?” Inman said. “If it’s not good for the middle class, we’ll oppose it.”


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