- Associated Press - Saturday, January 23, 2016

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) - Oklahoma lawmakers have more than 3,400 measures to consider when the 2016 session begins on Feb. 1, and that doesn’t include dozens more bills that will be needed to build a state budget with a roughly $1 billion hole in it.

A total of 1,725 new House and Senate bills and resolutions were filed by a key legislative deadline Thursday on a wide variety of topics. There are another 1,700 bills that remain active from the 2015 session.

The issues range from the serious, like public education and state tax policy, to the not-so-somber, like a bill to mandate people subscribe to their local newspaper.

But undoubtedly much of the focus for the upcoming session will be on managing a $900 million hole in the state budget, a number that is expected to grow larger before the final revenue figures are certified next month.

“That’s what we’re spending the majority of our time on and have been for the last several months leading up to session,” House Speaker Jeff Hickman said last week after briefing the Republican caucus in a closed-door meeting.

Hickman said he expects lawmakers will place special emphasis on reining in an estimated $1.7 billion in income tax credits and exemptions, $7 billion in sales tax exemptions and another $3 billion in so-called “off-the-top” money that is diverted directly to areas like education and transportation and is not appropriated by the Legislature.

Gov. Mary Fallin and Senate President Pro Tem Brian Bingman both have said off-the-top revenue and tax credits will be priorities this year.

Sen. Mike Mazzei, a Tulsa Republican and chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, has introduced a measure to suspend numerous tax incentives and roll back an income tax cut that went into effect on Jan. 1, but Hickman said he doesn’t expect the House will consider rescinding the tax cut.

Hickman also said the $900 million hole, which is about 13 percent less than lawmakers appropriated last year, will make it unlikely that public schools will be able to avoid cuts in state funding. And while lawmakers have about $385 million in the state’s Rainy Day Fund, Hickman said he doesn’t expect any of that revenue to be tapped to help ease cuts in the budget for the current fiscal year that ends June 30.

Looking for ways to help offset cuts in education will be a priority this session, with several bills introduced to increase pay for teachers. And both Bingman and Senate Education Chairman John Ford have introduced bills to encourage voluntary consolidation of some of the state’s more than 500 school districts.

Several bills also have been introduced to address the growing number of earthquakes that have been rattling Oklahoma and been linked to the disposal of wastewater from oil and natural gas production. Hickman, whose hometown of Fairview in northwest Oklahoma has been affected by a swarm of earthquakes, said he believes the Oklahoma Corporation Commission has all of the statutory authority it needs to regulate wastewater disposal.

But he said priorities for the Legislature will include ensuring a seismologist is hired by the Oklahoma Geological Survey and that the commission has funding to update its data collection for wastewater disposal wells.

“I think the Legislature is willing to find a way to make that work if they tell us that’s something they need,” Hickman said.

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Follow Sean Murphy at www.twitter.com/apseanmurphy

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