By Steve Metzer
The Journal Record
OKLAHOMA CITY – Gov. Kevin Stitt and leaders in the Oklahoma Legislature announced an agreement on a record $8.3 billion state budget on Wednesday.
The plan includes an increase in spending over last year of $157.7 million for common education, with money dedicated to an average increase in pay for teachers of $1,220. Stitt said the raise will put Oklahoma in the lead regionally in compensation for educators.
“This is something hugely, hugely exciting,” Stitt said, “to be number one in teacher pay in the region.”
State Superintendent of Education Joy Hofmeister, who attended the budget announcement made at the Capitol along with dozens of state lawmakers, thanked the governor and legislative leaders for continuing to invest in education, building on last year’s $6,100 increase for teachers and allocating an additional $74.3 million this year for local school districts to use hiring more teachers and counselors and fulfilling other needs.
“This reflects our desire to be on the cutting edge and to give our kids a competitive edge,” Hofmeister said. “I’m so happy that you were willing to listen and to act on what is a priority to Oklahoma.”
Shawn Hime, executive director of the Oklahoma State School Boards Association, also praised the budget, noting that the new money will provide schools approximately $190 more per student in the next school year.
“When today’s proposal of a $157.7 million funding increase is finalized, public school funding will have increased by $638 million over a two-year period. That’s an extraordinary accomplishment that will benefit Oklahoma’s schoolchildren for years to come,” Hime said.
Lawmakers had struggled to reach an agreement on education funding. Wednesday’s announced budget was described as a compromise that requires only school districts on the state funding equalization formula – representing 97% of districts in Oklahoma – to provide the average $1,220 pay raise and also to report back to the state on how the increase will be sustained in the future. Stitt urged districts not on the funding formula to also follow through with raises for teachers.
The budget includes a total new investment in education of $203 million, with $18 million earmarked for career tech centers to increase compensation for employees, $28 million for higher education to increase salaries and bolster research, and critical funding for physician residency programs for Oklahoma’s teaching hospitals.
Pay raises also were included for other state employees. The plan includes $37.7 million to fund an increase of up to $1,300 for state workers. State correctional officers were singled out to receive a $2-per-hour raise, representing a 14% increase in their compensation.
Other highlights of the budget include:
- More than $210 million in funding for health care, including $105 million to increase provider rates for physicians, hospitals and nursing homes; $62.8 million for graduate medical education; $29 million to preserve Medicaid provider rates in anticipation of declines in federal rate funding; $10 million to address rising needs for disability services; and $4.6 million to boost immunization programs at county health departments.
State Sen. Greg McCortney, R-Ada, who has been particularly interested in improving health care and access to care in rural areas, said he was encouraged by the investment. “It’s absolutely a great start,” he said. “Increasing nursing home rates is huge (and) the governor intends to release an even more comprehensive plan in the future, so I think you’ll see us make a much bigger swing in health care at that point.”
- About $26 million invested in job growth, including $19 million for the Quick Action Closing Fund to be used for economic development and related infrastructure development; $1 million for development specifically of the automotive and aerospace industries; $1 million to assist entrepreneurs and small business innovators; and $5.3 million to modernize and expedite permit processing for energy development.
- About $33 million for criminal justice, including $20 million to reform funding for district attorneys’ offices; $10 million for “Smart on Crime” programs to be administered by the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services; and a little more than $3 million for a diversion program and to address increasing demands for mental health services.
- Unspecified funding for two new Oklahoma Highway Patrol academies to put an estimated 80 more troopers on the road by 2020.
- “Full funding” of the Oklahoma Department of Transportation’s eight-year plan for road and bridge projects, and $30 million to support county road projects.
- About $55 million for government modernization, including the money for state employee pay raises; $15 million for digital transformation of government services; $1.7 million to create the Legislative Office of Fiscal Transparency; and $700,000 to hire more auditors and increase capabilities of the state auditor’s office.
- More than $3 million for agriculture and to meet rural needs, including $1.5 million for rural flood control dams; $1.1 million for wildfire mitigation; and money to hire a state veterinarian and also to help ensure clean water in parts of northeastern Oklahoma with high poultry density.
- $200 million in state savings.
“This year’s budget is historic. Holding firm to my commitment of no new taxes, we will put away $200 million more in savings while also increasing the state’s investment in core services by more than 5%,” Stitt said.
House Speaker Charles McCall and Senate President Pro Tempore Greg Treat described as historic the state’s ability this year to increase funding for services while at the same time save money to safeguard services during the next economic downturn.
“This is an amazing budget deal that makes huge investments in classroom funding, teacher pay, mental health, corrections and other critical areas all while holding back $200 million in savings,” Treat said.
Added McCall: “This budget is an investment in Oklahoma. (It) moves Oklahoma forward by increasing funding for education, rural infrastructure, public safety and health care.”
State Sen. Stephanie Bice, R-Oklahoma City, noting that the state was strapped for cash in each of her first four years as a legislator, said she was incredibly pleased that this year’s plan includes healthy funding to address a broad range of needs.
“This year, we were finally able to put money into savings as well as fund really important parts of the budget,” she said.
House Minority Leader Emily Virgin, D-Norman, disagreed that the governor and Republican-controlled Legislature did well in planning for the expenditure of hundreds of millions of dollars in new revenues that have flowed into state coffers this year.
“This is what a budget looks like when you decide taxpayer money is better suited to sit in a bank than be invested back into state resources like our children, state employees, and middle- and low-wage earners,” Virgin said. “Our state agencies were brutally impacted by Republican cuts over the past decade. This budget fails to make these agencies, including the state Department of Education, whole.”
In a statement, the Oklahoma Policy Institute also said lawmakers might have done much better in crafting a budget.
“As a result of last year’s revenue increases and a continuing strong economy, lawmakers had a historic opportunity to reverse a decade of cuts across core public services. This opportunity was only partly realized,” it said.
The $8.3 billion fiscal year 2020 budget is the largest in state history and includes approximately $500 million in new state spending.