- Associated Press - Saturday, May 16, 2015

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) - With the end of Oklahoma’s legislative session rapidly approaching, budget negotiators say they still haven’t reached a final agreement on how to divvy up nearly $6.6 billion to fund programs like health care, prisons, roads and public schools.

Details on how to close a $611 million gap were being worked out behind closed doors late Friday, but one thing is certain: Nearly every state agency will be forced to cut back programs and services.

Leaders in the Republican-controlled House and Senate already have said they plan to use a variety of one-time money sources to offset much of the budget hole, including tapping the state’s Rainy Day Fund, Unclaimed Property Fund and revolving agency accounts. Cuts to most agency budgets are expected to be around 7 percent, but budget writers also are trying to minimize the hit to the larger departments, such as the State Department of Education and the Oklahoma Health Care Authority, which oversees the state’s Medicaid system.

Regardless, Oklahoma residents can expect likely cutbacks for public schools and lower reimbursement rates for health care providers.

Education officials predict a 2 percent loss in funding would lead to the loss of more than 1,700 teachers statewide. And already, public schools already are grappling with a shortage of teachers and a steady increase in the number of students, leading to larger class sizes across the state. Schools also are dealing with an increase in mandatory costs, like the price of health benefits for teachers and school employees.

The Health Care Authority, which received $953 million in state appropriations last year, needs an additional $78.6 million this year just to maintain the current level of services, Chief Executive Officer Nico Gomez said. Most of that is the result of a reduction in federal funding for the agency, Gomez said.

The agency plans to cut back on services like dental work, sleep studies and allergy treatment, but ultimately will be forced to reduce the reimbursement rate that it pays to doctors, hospitals and nursing homes that care for Medicaid-eligible Oklahoma residents.

“There’s a business limit to what they can afford and still take our payment,” Gomez said. “Each cut gets more difficult and certainly more painful for everybody involved.”

State funding for Oklahoma’s public colleges and universities also is expected to take a hit. In budget documents prepared for legislative leaders, officials with the state regents said a 2.6 percent reduction would result in more than $23.2 million in cuts - causing the elimination of more than 100 academic courses, 80 faculty positions and more than 55 staff employees.

The Legislature is required under the state Constitution to adjourn its regular four-month session by the last Friday in May, but lawmakers typically try to wrap up before Memorial Day. With no agreement in place, that will be difficult to do.

“If things are not finalized on Monday, I think it might not be possible to achieve that goal,” said Sen. Clark Jolley, chief budget negotiator for the Senate.

Democrats voiced frustration Friday over the lack of movement on the budget.

“The fact that the most important thing we do is pass or not pass a state budget, and that the people of Oklahoma don’t know what’s in that budget or how it’s going to affect them … is really, really unfortunate,” House Democratic leader Rep. Scott Inman said.

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Follow Sean Murphy at www.twitter.com/apseanmurphy

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