Local residents learned about the latest state budget deal, as lawmakers discussed issues during the Legislative Focus session Thursday at the United Keetoowah Band Elder Center.
Sen. Earl Garrison, D-Muskogee; Rep. Mike Brown, D-Tahlequah; and Rep. Will Fourkiller, D-Stilwell, were on hand to answer questions and talk about recent action at the capitol.
Fourkiller said he’s heard this legislative session is expected to end two weeks early.
“We still have a lot of bills that need to be heard, so I’ll be surprised if it happens,” said Fourkiller. “As far as the budget is concerned, numbers have come out that I’m not real pleased with, but I’ll let the other two [legislators] talk about that. If the session does end early, it may be a blessing. That’s two weeks less damage we can do.”
Brown believes the session will end early, but said between the tax cut and the new budget, education and other programs will suffer.
“I have nothing against cutting taxes, but I do believe in a sound education system and sound infrastructure,” said Brown. “I debated against the tax cut. We’ve passed several measures in the past seven years. Now, tax cuts aren’t as damaging as the tax credits we handed out to businesses.”
Brown referred to the credits earned by oil and natural gas entities, and pointed out that due to these credits, Chesapeake Oil actually had a negative tax bill, meaning the average taxpayer in Oklahoma paid more to the state than Chesapeake.
“I don’t think that’s fair,” said Brown. “They say we have to make Oklahoma attractive to these businesses; well, the oil and gas are here. The companies are going to be here.”
Brown also said the tax cut, slated to take effect in 2015, merely “kicked the can down the road.”
“We safely passed a cut, because we aren’t going to have to worry about how to pay for it,” said Brown. “We left that to whomever is in office in 2016. It amounts to somewhere between $175 to $200 million, and we have no clue how to pay for it. It’s totally irresponsible.”
Brown said the $7.1 billion budget agreement reached between lawmakers and the governor Thursday would provide new funding for education.
“We funded $74 million in new dollars, with a $17 million supplement to be added later,” said Brown. “Higher education received $33 million, but only $10 million of that goes to operations; the rest is for debt service. We also make sure when we allocate to higher ed that we fund OU and OSU, and the regional universities get what’s left over. The interesting thing, though, is we sure didn’t short ourselves [legislators]. We gave ourselves $1 million in the House last year, and another $1 million this year, plus $5 million for the Legislative Service Bureau, and another $5 million for the finance office.”
Brown said another issue at the fore is the consolidation of public service boards, including combining the assets of the public service pension plans.
“There is no savings in consolidating those boards,” said Brown. “It would essentially put one person in charge of $20 billion in pension funds. They originally claimed the move would save $49 million, which turned out to be about $12 million. The teachers retirement funding system has been on a correctional path lately. Last year, it returned 116 percent. Now, it’s still underfunded, but it is on a path to correction as are several others that have been tweaked in the past two years. Why would you want to change that? We managed to protect it this session, but folks better be ready to protect their pension system next year.”
Garrison agreed with Brown, saying if a new, single board is created to manage the public service boards, it would become nothing more than a political football.
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