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Governor Gets $160 Million For Programs

Updated:
OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ Gov. Brad Henry appeared to be the biggest winner in a budget deal struck with legislative leaders, getting more than $160 million for programs he advanced in February that were left out of a general funding bill the governor vetoed.

Republicans leaders also are claiming success, pointing to the Democratic governor's acquiescence to a tax-cut program and a $1 million audit of the Oklahoma Department of Corrections, among other things

Henry used the tax-cut plan as leverage during negotiations. He threatened to veto the tax bill if it was not part of an agreement on an overall budget.

The program includes accelerating a previously approved income tax cut and implementing a back-to-school sales tax holiday and a tax credit for stay-at-home parents.

The governor's office did not claim victory after Henry and legislative leaders announced they had settled on a $7.1 billion budget plan. The announcement came at an upbeat news conference that contrasted with almost two months of tense words.

Henry, saying he had been left out of budget negotiations, vetoed a $6.9 billion standstill budget for most agencies on March 28.

At one point, state Treasurer Scott Meacham, Henry's top budget negotiator, described as ``nuts'' House Speaker Lance Cargill's insistence on spending money for an outside audit of the financially beleaguered Oklahoma Department of Corrections.

Cargill, meanwhile, said the original appropriations package was based on Henry's own budget recommendations in February. He accused Henry of operating in the ``theater of the absurd'' by vetoing the plan.

At week's end, both Cargill and Senate Co-President Pro Tem Glenn Coffee were minimizing any appropriations successes of the governor, which were made possible because lawmakers had more surplus funds to spend than when the first budget was developed.

``The vast majority of those proposals were things we were already looking at and preparing to do,'' Cargill said.

Coffee, R-Oklahoma City, suggested it wasn't legislators who blinked during budget talks.

``I think he (Henry) felt a lot of pressure about what would happen if he vetoed the tax-cut bill,'' Coffee said. ``He is the one that became a lot more malleable in the end.''

Henry's office declined to characterize the budget results in terms of winners and losers.

But a list of new items in the agreement were mostly programs on Henry's original agenda, although some were pared down.

Henry got an extra $22 million for teacher salaries. Teachers will now get a $1,000 average raise, compared to $600 under the legislative package.

Other budget items backed by Henry and agreed to by legislative leaders included an extra $33 million for higher education to head off double-digit tuition increases; $50 million in increased bonding authority for endowed chairs; $10 million for a new bioenergy center and a $10 million deposit into the teacher pension system.

Others were $15 million for Centennial projects; $10 million for the State Emergency Fund to pay for ice storms; $5 million to match private donations to an early childhood education program; $4.5 million for the common education formula to fully fund last year's pay raise and $3 million for Henry's Smart on Crime program, which includes drug courts and mental health initiatives.

The agreement also called for a permanent funding source for Oklahoma's Promise, a college scholarship program also known as the Oklahoma Higher Education Learning Access Program, or OHLAP.

Legislative budget officials disclosed last week that two other Henry programs to increase access to health care remain alive as the Legislature enters its final week.

Plans call for using a tobacco tax fund to expand a program to help small businesses provide health insurance for their employees and to fund Henry's All Kids program, which would increase the number of children who qualify for Medicaid.

``The governor was pleased by the bipartisan cooperation displayed by both houses of the Legislature,'' Paul Sund, Henry's communications director, said of the budget developments.

Sund said the governor believes it is vital for lawmakers to approve the health care programs to reduce the high number of uninsured Oklahomans, estimated between 650,000 and 700,000.

Both Cargill and Coffee hint a change in approach may accompany future budget negotiations.

Coffee said in the 2008 election year, leaders will work hard to improve communications and ``make sure that nobody has those feelings'' of being left out.

``Certainly the governor has to be part of the process,'' he said.

``In the future, we will continue to welcome ideas in the process,'' Cargill said. ``We are always welcoming ideas. It took a little longer to get their ideas to us, but we got them and worked it out.''

In announcing the budget accord, Henry called the 2007 legislative session ``rather challenging.''

``Every session is rather challenging. In the end we all come together and find common ground.

All sides said the agreement should permit lawmakers to wrap up their work on time by a 5 p.m. Friday deadline.
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