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Economic report brings optimism ahead of legislative session

 The Journal Record  | December 5, 2018

OKLAHOMA CITY – Although the economy is still a top issue for the state’s highest-ranking lawmakers, their situation heading into the next legislative session is far less dire.

One day after three top lawmakers discussed their priorities for the year, state Treasurer Ken Miller painted the backdrop for them. He released the final update on gross receipts to the treasury for this year. November’s collections totaled $1 billion, again breaking the record for the period. Other indicators have made Miller’s reports, which have been rosy of late, sound even more optimistic.

“With 20 consecutive months of growth in monthly gross receipts and unemployment at its lowest in 17 years, Oklahoma is on track to finish 2018 on a high note,” the report states.

Observers said that optimism will likely carry over into the new year and into the legislative session.

This time last year, Gov. Mary Fallin had just called a second special legislative session to patch the budget. A last-minute revenue bill to fund health care had failed its constitutional challenge in August, and the first attempt to fill the hole ended with a budget bill that included more agency cuts. Fallin, who had already promised she would veto any measure that further cut spending, line-item-vetoed the legislation. The gap remained, and officials were fearing another budget shortfall.

David Blatt, executive director of the Oklahoma Policy Institute, said there are even more contrasts between this year and last. Lawmakers had gotten used to bad news, after years and years of budget shortfalls and failures.

“I think for sure we’re in a much better financial situation than we have been for several years,” Blatt said. “Between a strong economy and the revenue measures that were passed (in the last) year, we are seeing significant revenue growth.”

He’s referring not only to special session House Bill 1010, which raised about $450 million in annual tax revenue, but also some of the lower-profile measures like adjustments to oil and gas tax incentives.

“This has allowed us to begin to recover from a decade of severe cuts in funding,” he said. “But we still have a ways to go.”

Most state agencies have seen several rounds of cuts since 2009, and some agencies have seen their budgets reduced by as much as 50 percent.

“People need to realize how deep and prolonged our downturn was,” Blatt said.

During the State Chamber of Oklahoma’s legislative preview on Tuesday, both House Speaker Charles McCall and Senate Minority Leader Kay Floyd said the economy would be the most important issue during the legislative session. Of course, their approaches to helping the economy differed.

However, the turn away from budget crises might be a good time to focus more on other policy areas, said Trent England, executive vice president of the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs.

“Panic does not produce good policy,” he said. “This time around, there’s sort of a lot of optimistic curiosity with what the Legislature might accomplish in 2019.”

That’s compounded by the fact that Oklahoma will have a new governor for the first time in eight years come January, and onlookers are waiting to see what his policy agenda will look like.

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