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Pressure mounts for Oklahoma legislators to reach a state budget agreement

BY MICHAEL MCNUTT Published: May 9, 2010
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An agreement on a state budget for the upcoming fiscal year has to be made this week or lawmakers may have to return in special session, the governor’s chief budget adviser said.

If something isn’t worked out early this week, the "likelihood of a special session increases dramatically,” said state Treasurer Scott Meacham, who serves as secretary of revenue and finance on Gov. Brad Henry’s Cabinet. "If we don’t get something worked out, there’s going to be a blowup. And then I think it takes time for everything to settle back down and you need to get back to work.”

Henry and House Speaker Chris Benge and Senate President Pro Tem Glenn Coffee said they felt confident a budget could be approved before the session adjourns in three weeks.

"We’re making progress,” Henry said. "We will have a budget proposal for the entire Legislature to consider very shortly.”

"We come to the table in good faith and consider revenue measures,” said Coffee, R-Oklahoma City. "I think we have plenty of time to do our work. I still hope there’s a chance for leaving early.”

Benge, R-Tulsa, said the pace of progress in the talks concerns him. Asked late last week where he thought the discussions were in relation to a football scoring drive, Benge said about the 50-yard line.

"We can get done before session (ends) but there’s going to have to be a lot of work over the next week or two to make it happen,” he said.

This year’s session is scheduled to end May 28. It takes at least three legislative days to get a budget package approved through both chambers of the Legislature. Last year, legislative leaders and the governor reached a budget deal one week before legislators were scheduled to adjourn. The budget was approved by the scheduled last day of the session, although the Senate had to return for a couple of days because of unrelated problems in getting a bill passed.

Talks between legislative leaders and the Democratic governor are said to be cordial as they deal with the state’s worst budget crisis since the Great Depression. They agree progress is slow on developing a $5.4 billion budget for the 2011 fiscal year, which starts July 1.

Negotiators meet behind closed doors and conversations, according to an agreement by all sides, are kept confidential. They met frequently the past two weeks; more talks are planned Monday.

"The gap between us continues to shrink and I think that’s why the governor feels pretty confident that we’re going to get there,” Meacham said.

Stumbling blocks appear to be the size of cuts for state agencies and whether education, which has been spared deeper cuts that most other agencies have taken the past year, should take more of a hit. The governor’s ideas to generate more money and getting rid of or cutting back some tax credit programs are other key issues.

Earlier ideas of doing away with some of the nearly 150 sales tax exemptions, which had been talked about earlier, are no longer on the table.

Meacham and Henry have the most experience in budget strategy and talks. Henry is serving the last year in his second four-year term. Meacham has been Henry’s budget adviser since the governor’s first year in office, 2003.

Meacham said this has been the most challenging year to craft a budget. He and the governor dealt with a shortfall of about $700 million in 2003, but the state’s economy picked up a short time later and in three years the state began recording record revenues.