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2010 Oklahoma Governor's race: New governor to face stiff budget challenges

Unlike the previous two years, legislators and the governor won't have federal stimulus money and a hefty amount of savings to help fill gaps caused by revenue shortfalls.
BY MICHAEL MCNUTT Published: October 3, 2010
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Blatt said he would suggest the new governor work with legislators to suspend the trigger from taking effect.

Tax increases are not an option. The Republican-controlled Legislature opposes tax hikes, which are difficult for lawmakers to approve. State Question 640, approved by voters in 1992, requires bills that create additional state revenue to receive three-fourths of all the votes in the Legislature or go to a vote of the people.

Changes in funding

Crafting a balanced budget for the 2012 fiscal year, which begins July 1, will be more of a struggle if voters approve State Question 744 on Nov. 2.

SQ 744 would require Oklahoma to increase its per-pupil expenditure to the average of surrounding states. Blatt said funding per-pupil spending to the regional average would cost $800 million to $1.7 billion in the three years the funding requirement would be phased in. It would cost the state about $392 million in the 2012 fiscal year.

Askins, Oklahoma's lieutenant governor, and Fallin, a congresswoman from Oklahoma City, have talked during the campaign about how to deal with the state budget.

Askins said she would like to have a budget-only session, which would require legislators and the governor to agree on a two-year budget. It would lead to better prioritization and reduce the spending rush at the end of each session, she said.

Fallin said she would focus on eliminating wasteful spending and make government more efficient, more effective and less costly. She would order a line-by-line review of the budget as well as a critical review of the functions of each agency.

This year's budget is about 7.6 percent less than the $7.2 billion budget legislators approved in 2009. State revenues came in nearly 20 percent below estimates beginning in August. Budget officials earlier this year revised the 2010 budget to about $6.9 billion.

"We need to have a conversation," said Brandon Dutcher, vice president for policy of the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs. "What does government exist to do? And then just go about prioritizing."

The core services, such as public safety, health services, roads and education, should be funded first, he said.

"When we run out, then the lower priority items just fall by the wayside and we don't have those anymore," Dutcher said. "When times are good and the money's rolling in, government can be subject to mission-creep and can start doing additional things it wouldn't be doing if it didn't have extra money lying around."

Selling properties

Dutcher said the governor could look at selling some properties such as golf courses and lodges because they really don't serve a core function of government. She also might consider privatizing some services.

"Why would government own a golf course?" he asked.

Meacham, who is not seeking re-election, will leave the state Capitol in January along with Henry, who is prohibited from seeking a third consecutive term.

"I'll have my phone on — they can call me anytime they want my help for what it's worth," Meacham said. "I obviously want whoever wins to be successful and to serve our state as well as they possibly can."

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