Oklahoma Legislature agrees on largest-ever budget
By SEAN MURPHY
OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Republican leaders in Oklahoma, who control every lever of political power in the state, unveiled their largest-ever budget proposal this week, the result of bruising negotiations that left the GOP governor fuming and even some Democrats happy with what it included.
The $13 billion state budget, a nearly 20% increase over last year's final spending plan, did not include one of Gov. Kevin Stitt's top priorities of cutting the state's income or grocery sales tax. House and Senate leaders also apparently blindsided the governor by voting to extend tobacco compacts with several Oklahoma-based Native American tribes that Stitt was hoping to renegotiate to get a better deal for the state.
Stitt's office didn't immediately comment Wednesday on the spending plan that easily passed the House and is expected to clear the Senate on Thursday. But during a press availability last week, Stitt said he was continuing to urge the Legislature to cut the state's top income tax rate by 0.25%.
“I implore the Legislature to do what's right and let's give some of that back to the taxpayer,” Stitt said.
Instead, the budget deal included a more modest elimination of the state franchise tax on businesses and a tax break for joint filers that are expected to cost a total of $70 million annually when fully implemented.
Stitt also said he was caught completely off guard when lawmakers unveiled a bill last week to extend the existing tribal compacts that he wanted to renegotiate.
“This has never been talked about the whole entire session. The governor had no idea about it,” Stitt said. “Really, really disappointing.”
Anticipating the possibility that the governor could veto the budget proposal, lawmakers convened a concurrent special session that would allow them to return to the Capitol early next month to override any vetoes by the governor.
Although House Democrats voted against the plan, it clearly included priorities they support, like six weeks of paid maternity leave for state employees, $215 million in new funding to incentivize the construction of affordable housing, pay raises for teachers and money for a popular culture museum in Tulsa.
“I've been in this building long enough to know that I'm not going to get a better deal,” said Rep. Forrest Bennett, a Democrat from Oklahoma City. “I had conversations with people on both sides of the aisle about voting yes.”
Republican leaders and the governor had already agreed earlier this month on an education funding package that included pay raises of up to $6,000 annually, $625 million in new recurring funding for public schools and a voucher-style tax credit program for families who home-school their children or send them to private schools.
The hefty price tag of the overall budget left some of the Legislature's more conservative Republicans questioning whether they would support the plan.
“It's going to be tough for me,” said Sen. Rob Standridge, a Republican from Norman who said, despite representing a community with the state's flagship University of Oklahoma, he was particularly bothered by the nearly $130 million boost in spending for higher education.
“It is the biggest, bulkiest, most spend-happy budget I've ever been a part of," said Standridge, who was elected to office in 2012 when the total state budget was $6.8 billion. “All Republicans put on their placards: decrease the size of government, limit spending. We all do that. And this year is certainly not doing that."
Also included in this year's spending plan was $145 million to provide improvements to an industrial park in eastern Oklahoma with the hopes of luring a Panasonic manufacturing facility. The Legislature already approved a $698 million incentive package to try and land a second plant after Panasonic chose Kansas for a manufacturing facility last year.
Follow Sean Murphy on Twitter: @apseanmurphy
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