Oklahoma led the rest of the states in the rate of decline in tax collections for the last quarter of 2009, according to a report released Tuesday. Oklahoma’s revenue collections dropped 24 percent for the last three months of 2009 compared with the same period a year earlier, according to the report by the Rockefeller Institute of Government. Tax collection reports prepared by the state treasurer’s office showed revenue was off 27.8 percent during the period. It actually showed an improvement over the third quarter of 2009, when tax collections were 29.3 percent less than the same period in 2008, according to state figures. The drop in revenue collections during the last quarter of 2009 isn’t as ominous as it might appear, state Treasurer Scott Meacham said. The national recession hadn’t hit Oklahoma during the last quarter of 2008, which makes comparing tax revenue for that period, when revenues still were strong, with 2009 figures pretty dramatic, he said. Part of the gap can be explained by the contrast in the two years; the rest can be attributed to the state’s sluggish economy, he said. "Our economy was doing very well and we hadn’t come down as quickly as other people did,” Meacham said Tuesday. Some improvement in revenue has been seen this year. January tax collections were off 16.7 percent compared with the same month the previous year, giving some hope to state officials that the recession may be loosening its stranglehold on Oklahoma since February 2009 when revenue collections started coming in below the previous year. This month’s collections will be released in about two weeks. "I think the worst of it is behind us,” Meacham said. "The question now is more how quickly will our revenues recover or will they ever recover to where they were before that dip occurred. We were on all-time highs in state revenues before the downturn. "That’s my concern — it’s going to be a long, slow upward climb.” The decline in revenue has led to an additional 7.5 percent across-the-board cuts to most state agencies for the current fiscal year and leaving the state with a deficit estimated about $283 million by June 30, the end of the fiscal year. The outlook for the 2011 fiscal year also is grim; legislators this session have about $1.2 billion less to appropriate than a year ago. "We would like to think that we’re at the bottom currently,” House Speaker Chris Benge said. "There are some signs that maybe we are but we just don’t know. "On natural gas prices, it’s hard to predict,” said Benge, R-Tulsa. "The collections overall, I think there’s a reasonable chance that you’ll see a slow improvement, a slow recovery. The national sentiment is starting to feel better about the economy.” As most other states, Oklahoma recorded a loss of sales tax and income tax revenues. Because it is an energy-producing state, the drop in oil and natural gas prices since reaching highs in 2008 continued to tail off through 2009. Gross production taxes on oil and natural gas generally produce about 12 to 15 percent of the state’s operating money. Natural gas prices fell from a high of about $13 per 1,000 cubic feet in 2008 to about $5 last year and oil fell from a high of about $147 a barrel in 2008 to about $50 last year. "Natural gas prices — as long as they stay below the $6 level — Oklahoma’s economy is going to struggle,” Meacham said. Meacham, who was in Washington this week attending the National Governors Conference, said an economist from Moody’s Investors Service, the credit rating agency, predicted a tough outlook for states the next two years. Lucy Dadayan, who wrote the Rockefeller Institute report, said states will likely face further revenue weaknesses in the first quarter of 2010. Oklahoma has about $1.3 billion in reserve funds — federal stimulus funds and money in its Rainy Day Fund, or savings account — to help it get through the current fiscal year shortfall and the 2011 fiscal year expected drop in revenues. Most of it will be spent to deal with the shortfalls in the 2010 and 2011 fiscal years. Plans are to leave about $149 million in the Rainy Day Fund for the 2012 fiscal year.