As legislators tackle Oklahoma's worst budget crisis in modern history, they must "wield the budget knife carefully with clinical precision," Gov. Brad Henry said today.
"We cannot balance the budget at the expense of the most vulnerable among us," Henry said to members of the House and Senate, kicking off a session that will run through late May.
Making his last scheduled address to both chambers of the Republican-led Legislature, the Democratic governor, according to a final draft of his speech, reminded lawmakers that Oklahomans daily depend on state agencies: Teachers instruct children, road crews maintain highways — and keep them clear of snow and ice during winter storms such as the one that struck the state last week — and state troopers and correctional officers keep the state safe.
"As we respond to this fiscal storm, we must keep the needs of these hardworking Oklahomans at the forefront," Henry said. "At no time is that more urgent than now, during economic distress, when people increasingly must turn to us for help."
Henry, who is serving his eighth and last year as governor, said the "economic storm that has seized our nation has also battered Oklahoma."
Revenues for the state have come in 25.6 percent below estimates for the first six months of this fiscal year, which started July 1.
Estimates call for legislators to have about $1.3 billion less to appropriate this year compared to last year. Available money in the state's savings account and remaining federal stimulus funds will help deal with the deficit, but cuts still will be needed to approve a balanced budget as required by the state's constitution.
Henry told legislators about his first year in office in 2003, when most of the lawmakers listening weren't serving at the state Capitol, and how he and legislators came together to deal with a $700 million shortfall with little money in reserves.
"Together, we made hard choices, weathered the storm and emerged even stronger," Henry said.
Henry asked legislators to work together and leave out political rhetoric — especially in this election year.