- Associated Press - Saturday, December 24, 2016

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) - The problems will be familiar in the 2017 Oklahoma legislative session: crowded public schools with teachers desperate for a pay raise, overcrowded prisons, a Highway Patrol facing furloughs and dozens of other cash-strapped agencies that have cut services to the bone.

But lawmakers who return to the Capitol in February will also be faced with a budget hole of nearly $870 million - about 12 percent of state spending - resulting from slumping energy prices, years of tax cuts and costly tax subsidies for businesses and industries.

It will be the third consecutive year the Republican-controlled Legislature will have to either further cut state services or find new sources of money through increased taxes, fines or fees. But the prospect of raising taxes is politically difficult, especially for Republicans, many of whom were elected on promises of keeping taxes low.

Republican Gov. Mary Fallin and her top budget negotiator, Secretary of Finance Preston Doerflinger, have said budget cuts alone won’t be enough and intend to propose things like a tax increase on cigarettes and expanding the state’s sales tax to apply to some currently exempt goods and services.

“Once again this session, we’ll put some ideas on the table and try to get our legislature to see the different funding needs we have in our state,” Fallin said last week. She’ll lay out some of her proposals when she presents her executive budget to the Legislature on Feb. 6.

Moore Republican Rep. Mark McBride says he respects “what she’s trying to do … but I think it will be difficult.

“The services tax, I’m not real keen on. And I just don’t think my constituents and people in the state are keen on it either.”

Although heavily outnumbered in both the House and Senate, Democrats are unlikely to jump on board with Fallin’s proposal to broaden the sales tax. They have been fiercely critical of Republicans’ push to lower the income tax in recent years, arguing those cuts overwhelmingly benefit the wealthy at the expense of the middle class.

“Oklahoma is bankrupt and unable to pay its bills because of $1 billion worth of tax cuts, hundreds of millions of dollars in gross production tax giveaways to the oil and gas industry, and $2 billion worth of tax credits and exemptions to wealthy corporations, all of which this governor supported,” said House Democratic leader Rep. Scott Inman, of Oklahoma City. “That’s the reason we’re in this mess. To get out of it, we need to roll back those irresponsible tax plans, not raise taxes on working families.”

Another likely target for revenue will be some of those hundreds of millions of dollars in incentives Inman spoke of - specifically a credit for the production of wind energy that an independent consulting group has recommended be capped or ended. Payments under that program have skyrocketed from $3.7 million in 2010 to more than $113 million in 2014.

Beyond the budget, lawmakers will have a number of policy issues demanding their attention this year, most notably a growing teacher shortage stemming largely from Oklahoma having some of the lowest teacher salaries in the nation. New House Speaker Charles McCall and Senate President Pro Tempore Charles Schulz both have said raising teacher pay will be a priority, although finding a way to fund it will be a challenge.

Fallin also is likely to propose a series of changes to Oklahoma’s sentencing laws and criminal justice system designed to slow the rapid growth of the state’s prison population.

If that wasn’t enough, the Legislature must pass a law allowing Oklahoma driver’s licenses to comply with the federal Real ID Act - otherwise, residents will be unable to use state licenses to board commercial airline flights or gain access to federal military installations or buildings.

Many Republican lawmakers in Oklahoma have opposed complying with the federal law over concerns that the federal government is overstepping its authority and gathering too much information from its citizens.


Follow Sean Murphy at www.twitter.com/apseanmurphy

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