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Legislature Wrapping Up 2007 Session

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ The Oklahoma Legislature prepared to bang the gavel on its 2007 regular session Thursday in a flurry of activity in which lawmakers appropriated tens of millions of dollars for state agencies and services and gave final approval to a variety of social programs.

Lawmakers planned to adjourn one day early after the Senate reached agreement on a bill to provide an extra $50 million in bonding authority for endowed chairs at public universities. The Legislature is required to adjourn its 4-month-long regular session on Friday at 5 p.m.

The endowed chairs program was a priority of Governor Brad Henry. The measure, approved 43-5 in the Senate, had been bottled up in a Senate budget committee in a dispute involving mostly rural senators who wanted more money for capital projects at regional universities and two-year colleges.

In a statement, University of Oklahoma President David Boren thanked lawmakers for matching private donations for projects like the cancer and diabetes centers and other projects at more than a dozen colleges and universities across the state.

``By matching private donations on an equal basis, Oklahoma is able to accomplish twice as much as we would be able to do with state funds alone,'' Boren said.

Meanwhile, the state House was expected to allocate another $140 million in constitutional Rainy Day reserve surplus funds Thursday evening.

Allocations include $16.5 million for projects at regional universities and two-year colleges, $22 million to complete a teacher pay raise, $20 million for operational expenses at state colleges and universities, $15 million for the state Centennial Commission and $10 million to help shore up the underfunded Teacher's Retirement System.

The surplus will accrue because of strong economic growth and deposit limits on the Rainy Day fund. For the third consecutive year, the state will fill the Rainy Day fund to the constitutional maximum and have revenues above the fund's cap, officials said. The fund's balance is $495.7 million, allowing a maximum deposit of $75.9 million.

The state House late Wednesday gave final approval to a $6.9 billion general appropriations bill to fund state government agencies and programs in the fiscal year that begins July 1. Agreement on the budget was reached between Henry and House and Senate leaders last week, paving the way for a smooth adjournment and avoiding a possible special budget-writing session.

In March, Henry vetoed a general appropriations measure he said was negotiated by the House and Senate without his input.

The House and Senate gave final approval to dozens of bills and resolutions Thursday.

Legislation to help pay for infrastructure needs in communities near Oklahoma military bases was given final approval in the Oklahoma House. The House voted 95-2 for the measure that was approved a day earlier in the state Senate.

The measure would authorize state-financed bond issues of up to $100 million statewide for a loan program for school districts and cities already providing services to military bases targeted for expansion under the 2005 Base Realignment and Closure Commission review.

The bases are Fort Sill in Lawton, Vance Air Force Base in Enid, Tinker Air Force Base in Midwest City and Altus Air Force Base. The facilities have an annual economic impact of $6 billion in Oklahoma.

``The expansion of Oklahoma's military bases shows our state's continuing commitment to excellence, and it will spark real economic growth in Oklahoma,'' said Rep. Don Armes, R-Faxon, author of the measure.

``This is the largest economic issue in Oklahoma since the land run,'' said Rep. T.W. Shannon, R-Lawton. ``It is a unique opportunity for us to step up to the plate and say, 'Thank you and welcome,' to the military families who live in Oklahoma.''

Henry is expected to sign the bill.

The Senate gave final approval to a faith-based justice measure that was a priority of House Speaker Lance Cargill's. The legislation, passed 36-10 in the Senate, encourages churches and other faith-based groups to prepare state inmates for life after prison and reduce the number of repeat offenders.

Sen. Constance Johnson, D-Oklahoma City, said she supports the idea but complained there are no guidelines in the bill on how $100,000 set aside for the program will be spent.

In other action, lawmakers:

_Approved the Eucha-Spavinaw Nutrient Management Act which requires poultry feeding operations, waste utilization businesses and nutrient management units in northeast Oklahoma to adhere to the terms of a 2003 agreement between the city of Tulsa and the poultry industry.

_Passed legislation requiring financial literacy instruction for Oklahoma secondary school students to help them avoid money problems as adults.

_Approved a measure that expands health savings accounts that allows state workers to set aside pretax dollars toward medical and long-term care expenses.

_Passed measures to expand Academic Achievement Awards that provide cash bonuses to teachers and to encourage charter schools in the Oklahoma City and Tulsa area.
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