By Steve Metzer
The Journal Record
OKLAHOMA CITY – Gov. Kevin Stitt, House Speaker Charles McCall and other House lawmakers held a press conference on Monday to announce highlights of their proposed state budget for fiscal year 2020.
Absent were members of the state Senate.
Stitt said he was encouraged a week-and-a-half ago by progress being made in hammering out a budget and felt then that a final document was very near to completion. However, he said he was disappointed last week when the Senate shared some budget plans and priorities without his knowledge that didn’t align with those of his administration and the House.
Despite the setback, the governor said he remains optimistic that an agreement will be reached soon.
“I’m prepared to be here through to June, (but) I don’t think we’re going to have to be,” he said. “We have the chance to resolve this, to get this thing across the finish line.”
Speaker McCall agreed that Republicans, who dominate both chambers of the Legislature, are divided only on a few issues – education funding being far and away the biggest.
“I don’t think there’s a lot standing between us,” McCall said. “There’s a lot that we’re unified on,”
Funding for education has been a formidable hurdle for the Legislature all year. It’s likely that well more than $200 million will be added to what was spent last year, but lawmakers in the House and Senate haven’t been able to agree on how the money will be spent. The budget unveiled Monday by Stitt and McCall calls for $200 million more for public education “across the spectrum,” including $155 million for common education, $18 million for career tech centers and raises for career tech employees, $28 million for higher education to provide for raises and bolster research, and funding for other priorities, including an across-the-board $1,200 pay raise for Oklahoma’s public school teachers.
While the Senate is in agreement that education is due for another major infusion of dollars after lawmakers voted last year to favor a $6,100 across-the-board pay raise for teachers, leaders in that chamber have said it’s important to invest new capital this year in the “funding formula” that determines how much money will go to individual school districts. That would allow districts to hire new teachers and classroom aides or spend money on needed supplies or fulfilling other needs.
State Sen. Roger Thompson, who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee, said he’s received far more calls this year from educators seeking more money for classrooms than for pay raises. Senate President Pro Tempore Greg Treat, who met later Monday with reporters, added that reducing classroom sizes and funding other school needs has been a priority in the Senate since the start of the legislative session. He defended restating those priorities last week.
“All we did was enunciate what the Senate priority is,” he said. “When the Senate enunciates its priorities, it shouldn’t be offensive.”
Treat added that the Senate has “never walked away from the table” and that senators planned to meet with Stitt and House leaders later Monday.
Budget highlights outlined by Stitt and McCall include:
- $200 million to be held as savings. Stitt has said he wants to bank $2 billion during the course of his administration as a safety net to protect against cuts in core services if and when revenues fall again.
- More than $200 million for health care, including $105 million to increase provider rates for physicians, hospitals and nursing homes; $62.8 million to support physician training in rural hospitals; $10 million to reduce the wait list for developmental disability services; and $4.6 million to boost immunization programs at county health departments.
- $16 million to fund a 14% pay raise for current correctional officers and to hire additional officers. Funding for public safety also would include money for two new trooper academies and putting an estimated 80 additional more highway patrol troopers on roads in 2020.
- More than $25 million to fund criminal justice reform, to include an overhaul of the way district attorneys’ offices are funded.
- $19 million for the Quick Action Closing Fund meant to stimulate job growth and the state’s economy. About $7.3 million would be spent on other economic development initiatives.
- Full funding of the Oklahoma Department of Transportation’s eight-year plan to improve roads and bridges, and $30 million to support county road projects.
- $15 million for digital transformation of state government services.