By ROB W. ANDERSON
State Rep. Mike Brown, D-Tahlequah, took office for the first time in 2004, and he says the projected budget for the upcoming year looks much like it did nearly a decade ago.
The 2013 Tahlequah Area Chamber of Commerce Legislative Focus opened Friday at Cherokee Elder Care with a discussion about the flat budget and the negative impact of tax cuts.
Legislators are expected to return to work on Monday to address these and other issues, and Brown is concerned funding for education and infrastructure may be affected.
“We’re just about back to a $7 billion budget. The problem is, the governor says that we’re going to have a flat budget,” he said. “Whenever I was first elected, we actually gave teachers a $3,000 pay raise the first year. The second year we came back and actually gave them another $1,200 pay raise We spent about $50 million extra on infrastructure needs – roads, bridges and transportation.”
Brown said that during his early years, access to mental health care was expanded, along with services in other agencies.
“ In the past eight years, though, it’s been total cuts in each one of these agencies, including education. Education is probably taking one of the biggest cuts. Now we’re back to the point that we can actually start filling those gaps once again, yet we’re at a flat budget. The electorate needs to be asking why.”
Brown was the only elected official attending the event, as Sen. Earl Garrison, D-Muskogee, had the flu, and Rep. William Fourkiller, D - Stilwell, was attending a forum in Adair County.
Brown said the legislative leadership has burdened the state through its tax credits and cuts.
“We all enjoy a tax cut,” said Brown. “I think I enjoyed a $40 tax rebate the first or second year I was there. The second year, I think, we got a $20 tax cut or something like that, but education received about $200 million in cuts because of that.”
Brown said local mental health services are coming under fire, too.
“They’re fixing to shut down another one of my programs out at Lake Tenkiller, and it’s not that there’s not money for it,” said Brown. “We’ve had a problem with one person who doesn’t want that type of program in her neighborhood. So it’s going to cost about 43 jobs and half a million dollars in payroll to leave this area. These are just a few of the things that go on at the capitol.”
Brown indicated House members submitted fewer bills this session.
“I think there were roughly 1,900 bills filed this year,” he said. “There are 19 or 20 bills dealing with carrying firearms and whether we allow school officials to carry firearms, but we’re not worried about funding for teacher preparedness or some of the other areas like reading sufficiency. We’re not going to be talking about funding for those.”
Brown anticipates legislators will spend another session seeking reforms in areas like worker’s compensation and/or health care. He said he reviewed newspaper clippings from the past 10 years and noticed there was a reform theme present at every legislative session.
“It seems like we’re continually reforming the worker’s compensation system, the educational system or our health care system,” said Brown.
“We have done so much to worker’s compensation in Oklahoma that we need to actually allow some of this to take effect. The one thing that we don’t want to do in our caucus is to actually harm the worker any more than he has already been harmed. We want to make sure that he is able to see a doctor. We want to make sure that doctor gets paid, and we want to make sure that he’s got a path back to work. We don’t believe in jackpot justice. That’s a cliché that goes around in courthouses. I think that’s a thing of the past in Oklahoma.”
Brown offered a personal example of how worker’s compensation reform has impacted his family.
He provided a brief background of a relative’s job, which was a $40,000-a-year tech position with Corbin Optical. Brown said the relative had what was expected to be a routine surgical procedure, only to lose the use of his arms and legs.
“He went in for a simple operation on his appendix. They put the tube in the wrong spot and pulled it out and [he had a stroke],” said Brown.
“So he’s in a wheelchair and can’t use his arms and legs. His wife divorced him and took his kids. The doctors wiped the bill off and said ‘you’re free to go,’ And there’s not an attorney in Oklahoma that will take his case because there’s nothing there. Now that’s jackpot justice on the wrong side. I think everybody needs to be treated fairly, whether you’re on one side of the system or the other.”
Brown noted the Legislature has about a 3.2 percent higher income this year than what it was projected to be, but said the challenge will be in keeping the hands out of the pot.
“We’ve become pretty good at transferring those funds out of the rainy day fund and special funds for use in this year’s budget, which we’re not supposed to do,” he said. “We should be able to get through this year, but as I said, the governor is going to come out with a flat budget.”