State officials, local party heads highlight 2020 budget

Whitney Bryen | Oklahoma Watch

Gov. Kevin Stitt announces details about the state budget to a crowd in the Blue Room at the State Capitol on May 15. From left are: Senate President Greg Treat, R-Oklahoma City; Gov. Stitt, and House Speaker McCall, R-Atoka.

The Oklahoma legislature announced a budget deal earlier this month, with Gov. Kevin Stitt, the House of Representatives and the Senate all in agreement.

Among budget decisions for 2020 was one to put $200 million into the State's savings. Meanwhile, public education will receive a $203 million increase across the spectrum and $37.7 million will go towards a state employee pay raise. Some folks appreciate the legislators putting money into the bank, while others feel it could have been used on core services.

In a release from Sen. Wayne Shaw, R-Grove, he commended the legislature, budget negotiators, and the governor and his staff for creating a "fiscally responsible budget while taking into account the essential needs in critical areas of state government."

"The Fiscal Year 2020 budget requires no new taxes and will still allow the state to save $200 million while also increasing the state's investment in core services by more than 5 percent. By next year, the state is estimated to have at least $1 billion in savings to cushion against any unforeseen changes in the economy."

Teachers will receive another pay raise after rallying at the State Capitol last year. The education budget provides for a $1,220 increase in pay. Shaw said next year's pay raise will boost Oklahoma to No. 1 in the region in teacher pay. An additional $74 million will go into the funding formula for individual classroom needs.

While Shaw said the $30 million increase to Oklahoma's County Improvements for Roads and Bridges account will fully fund the program, Rep. Matt Meredith, D-Tahlequah, said it's "just a drop in the bucket."

Meredith said the state has taken a little over $180 million from the CIRB fund over the last several years, which has caused road projects to stall.

"Across the state, because of what we've done by robbing CIRB funds, there was a 170 bridge projects across the state that were put on hold over the last several years," he said. "30 of those bridges were taken off the books all together. There were bridges that need to be replaced."

Although Meredith voted no on the budget, he also said it's the best one he's seen in the three years he's been at the capitol. However, he doesn't think $200 million should go into savings, but rather into core services, and that the $200 million in savings is a political talking point.

"At the end of the day, we asked the public to do that in the form of the revenue raisers we did last year with [H.B.] 1010," Meredith said. "They said OK, do it. We told them it was going to be for core services and not to be put in a savings account, especially when there's bills to pay. Everybody loves to save money, but you got to pay your bills first, before you start saving money."

Meredith and democrats have been hoping to see a Medicaid expansion occur over the last couple of years, and would have probably liked to see part of that $200 million go towards a deal with the federal government, which would bring back nearly $900 million for the expansion.

"That $200 million, that right there would fully fund the matching deal for the Medicaid expansion," Meredith said. "The Medicaid expansion would cost the state $140 million. We could put that up right there and in return we could $900 million from the federal government, which quite frankly our tax dollars are going to anyway, so might as well bring them home."

Republicans have been hesitant to back Medicaid expansion, because the state would have to continue to find money every year to put into the deal with the federal government. The budget for Oklahoma health care includes $62.8 million for the Graduate Medication Education program; $105 million reallocation to increase provider rates for physicians, hospitals, and nursing homes; $29 million saved to go towards a new preservation fund to preserve Medicaid provider rates; $10 million to decrease the Development Disability Services wait list; and $4.6 million to increase immunizations and staff county health departments.

Pam Iron, Cherokee County Democrat Party chair, said she is "concerned that there is not mention of funds in health care regarding Medicaid expansion; only funds to preserve medical provider rates if they fall."

Iron also said the rainy day fund has its merits, but it should be closely watched.

"It should have tight regulations as to its use, not as a slush fund for pet projects," she said. "In summary, I would like this new transparency office to public a quarterly budget showing sources of revenue and expenses for the public view."

Justin Kennedy, chair for Cherokee County Young Republicans, said he's glad the state has money to put into the rainy day fund. He also thinks that there are things the state could work on. Instead of seeing pay raises for teachers, he said he would rather see it go into the classroom.

"I'm glad that we're putting more money towards education, because that is important," he said. "I don't know that we should be doing another teacher raise this quickly. After talking to some teachers, I spoke to a teacher the other day that's got textbooks from, like, 2001. It's 2019. They're almost 20 years old, so they're way behind."

State employees should see a pay raise of up to $1,400, as the state put $37.7 million into government modernization. Kennedy said he's happy to see state employees, like child welfare case workers, get a raise.

"These folks have fields of expertise," he said. "They're literally requiring people to be experts in their field before they start this job. So why not pay them as if they're experts instead of shelf stockers?"