- Associated Press - Saturday, February 20, 2016

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) - Gov. Mary Fallin’s suggestion that lawmakers redraft the current fiscal year state budget plan to ease funding cuts to priority areas like public schools and overcrowded prisons fell flat in the Senate, where leaders say they prefer across-the-board reductions to agency budgets.

Because collections to the state treasury have fallen well below expectations amid a slump in energy prices, state finance officials in January ordered mandatory 3 percent cuts to state agencies for the last six months of the current fiscal year. Since then, revenue collections have continued to plummet, prompting a warning from Fallin’s Secretary of Finance Preston Doerflinger that even deeper cuts are expected to begin in March.

Both Fallin and House Speaker Jeff Hickman have suggested lawmakers could pass a bill to revise the allocations to state agencies this year to order deeper cuts to some agencies in order to protect priority areas like education, public safety and health care.

“The key reason to do that is to avoid across-the-board cuts,” said Hickman, R-Fairview. “You would be able to target certain critical areas in doing that, which is not an option the secretary of finance has. He has to simply cut across the board.”

But Senate President Pro Tem Brian Bingman said Senate Republicans prefer all state agencies receive equal cuts for the remainder of the fiscal year that ends June 30.

“Say you want to cut education less, then that means you have to cut someone else, mental health or somebody, greater than what the across-the-board cut would be,”said Bingman, R-Sapulpa. “If adjustments need to be made, I think they need to be made across the board.”

It’s not clear how much deeper cuts to agency budgets will be beyond 3 percent already ordered. Doerflinger said he wants to see how February collections come in before ordering the second round of cuts to agencies.

“We know that those cuts are going to have to be deepened, but we would do that with the March allocations,” Doerflinger said.

So far, most state agencies are dealing with the reduced allocations by reducing or eliminating travel and leaving vacancies unfilled. The Oklahoma State Department of Health and Department of Human Services both have announced this month voluntary buyouts for more than 500 retirement-eligible state workers, and some other agencies also are expected to offer buyouts.

Despite this year’s budget cuts and an even deeper hole in next year’s budget of $1.3 billion, or nearly 20 percent, less than was allocated last year, Fallin expressed optimism that Oklahoma agencies will weather the storm and find ways to become more efficient.

“We’ve been through downturns like this before with the energy sector, and we’ll get through it again,” Fallin said, “but we do have to roll up our sleeves, do the hard work, make tough decisions, and not let this crisis go to waste.”


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