- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 29, 2016

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) - Oklahoma state workers called on lawmakers Tuesday to implement a series of measures to raise revenue, in order to avoid further cuts to state agencies and services that they said are harming the vulnerable citizens they serve.

About 20 state workers and retirees from various agencies accused legislative leaders of a lack of leadership in the budget-writing process and urged them to release details of the spending plan for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

“Legislative inaction on the budget demonstrates a lack of regard for the work state employees do and who they serve,” said Sterling Zearley, executive director of the Oklahoma Public Employees Association. “Unless lawmakers act now, more cuts will be implemented.”

Legislative budget writers are working to close a projected $1.3 billion hole in the state spending plan for next year due in part to declining energy prices. So far this year, Oklahoma officials have twice ordered state agencies to reduce their spending due to revenue shortfalls during the fiscal year that ends June 30.

“The recent program cuts, the ones that are planned, plus a lack of state leadership in this crisis show that we are on a runaway train with seemingly no one at the wheel,” Zearley said.

House Speaker Jeff Hickman, R-Fairview, said many state agencies have experienced deep budget cuts as lawmakers worked to prevent funding cutbacks to public education.

“A lot of our agencies and employees have been working under those conditions,” Hickman said.

The speaker said lawmakers are working on a variety of ideas to increase state revenue and avoid more burdensome budget reductions.

“There’s a great deal of work going on within the House. All options are on the table,” Hickman said.

Jess Callahan, president of the OPEA and a social services supervisor for the Department of Human Services in Hugo, said cuts in state services have already forced delays in state supplemental payments to low-income elderly citizens as well as disabled and vision-impaired individuals.

“The fearful outcry from the customers that we serve has been disheartening,” Callahan said. Delays in those monthly payments will force some of the state’s most vulnerable citizens to choose between food, water and co-payments for medications, he said.

“Morale is low. State employees are scared,” Callahan said.

Mike Rogers, a unit manager at the James Crabtree Correctional Center in Helena, said he has worked at the Department of Corrections for 26 years and that employees have endured furloughs and reduced paychecks for at least the last decade.

“Safety has been compromised to a certain degree,” Rogers said. “Balancing the budget on the backs of state employees isn’t going to work. Further cuts are going to cause deeper problems than we already have.”

Don Keenan, a retired Oklahoma Employment Security Commission employee from Tulsa, said more than 71 percent of state retirees make an average of less than $1,000 a month and retirees have not received a cost-of-living adjustment in eight years.

“This failure of leadership has got to stop,” Keenan said.

Among other things, Zearley called on lawmakers to repeal a cut in the state income tax that went into effect in January, modernize the state tax code and raise the tobacco tax to generate new revenue. Zearley also proposed suspending all corporate tax credits and incentives in 2017.

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