The state's $7.1 billion budget bill cleared its last legislative hurdle Tuesday and is on its way to Gov. Mary Fallin for expected final approval.
The Senate voted 28-20 to pass House Bill 2301, with eight Republicans joining 12 Democrats to vote against the budget measure for the 2014 fiscal year, which begins July 1. It needed 25 votes to pass; Republicans control the Senate 36-12.
Fallin could act on the measure by the end of the week.
The House of Representatives voted 59-40 last week to pass the measure. Twelve Republicans joined 28 Democrats to oppose the measure.
No Democrat in either chamber voted for the bill.
Most of those asking questions about the measure complained that additional money could have gone to core services.
Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Clark Jolley defended the bill, saying the budget targeted funding increases for core government services.
“This budget represents a conservative approach to limit the growth of government while still investing in teaching in the classroom, in child welfare and our infrastructure management,” said Jolley, R-Edmond. “We know we need to see increased dollars go to kids in the classroom, and we must press forward with monumental reforms to our child welfare services. These are fundamental core services, and this budget fulfills our most important commitments.”
Several Republicans grumbled about $30 million being appropriated to the Long Range Planning Commission, which is being reorganized and will be responsible for state buildings.
Sens. Greg Treat, R-Oklahoma City, and Cliff Aldridge, R-Choctaw, said they are concerned some money could go to complete the American Indian Cultural Center and Museum, which has stalled because of lack of funding to finish the project.
The center has benefited from three previous state bond issues totaling $63 million, as well as $14.5 million in federal funding and $4.9 million and 250 acres of land from Oklahoma City. A bill authorizing a $40 million bond issue for the center failed by one vote last year in the Senate. A growing number of legislators are leery about increasing the state's bond indebtedness.
Jolley said any funding decision by the Long Range Planning Commission would require approval by both chambers.
“The Long Range Planning Commission … I don't believe should be making a decision that not only results in a project being completed but would result in additional appropriations being required,” he said. “That would be a very inappropriate thing for them to do.”
Aldrich, who voted against the bill, said, “I wish I could share your sentiments that I would be as shocked if none of this money that we're appropriating to this … commission went to the Native American Cultural Center.”
Several Democrats criticized $7 million being spent for legislative operations, with $5 million going to renovate office space and vacant areas of the state Capitol into legislative offices and committee rooms.
Sen. Charles Wyrick, D-Fairland, said he found out his office was among those to be renovated.
“I didn't ask for it,” he said. “I didn't want my office remodeled.”
Wyrick said the money to renovate offices should be spent instead on education.
Others criticized $120 million being allotted over the next two years to begin repairing the Capitol.
Senate Minority Leader Sean Burrage, D-Claremore, said the GOP-controlled Legislature lacked the political courage to seek a bond issue to pay for the repairs; bond rates are at a historic low and a bond issue would have freed up money for other needs, such as education.
No mention was made of the lack of raises for state employees during the nearly two hours senators took to ask questions and debate the measure. State troopers and correctional officers are among employees who have gone nearly seven years without raises.
A bill was pending in the Legislature that dealt with raises for mostly public safety employees when Fallin and GOP legislative budget leaders announced they reached a budget agreement that included no pay increases for state workers. The governor backs a study that would compare the pay and benefits of state employees with those paid in the private sector and in other states.