Oklahoma House passes $5.3 billion spending bill; Senate surprised

Wednesday, February 25th 2004, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) -- In a move that surprised Senate leaders, the Oklahoma House on Tuesday passed a $5.3 billion spending bill that funds state government for the coming year without tax increases.

The general appropriations bill passed by a 79-18 bipartisan vote. The measure increases spending by 3.8 percent and includes money to fully pay for 100 percent of teacher health care insurance benefits.

An omnibus general appropriations bill is allowed in the Constitution and has been used in previous years to ensure agencies can continue to operate at the start of the fiscal year on July 1, even if a legislative fight holds up funding for individual agencies.

House Appropriations Chairman Billy Mitchell, D-Lindsay, said the House was "staking out our position" by passing the bill.

Mitchell said the measure appropriates all but between $7 million and $8 million of available revenue. He said those funds can be used to make adjustments to agency budgets later in the session.

House Speaker Larry Adair, D-Stilwell, said he had talked to Senate President Pro Tem Cal Hobson, D-Lexington, about the House bill.

However, there was no agreement between Democratic leaders of the two legislative bodies that the bill is the best way to handle the appropriations process.

"I have not seen the bill nor have I been consulted about it at all," said Sen. Mike Morgan, D-Stillwater, Senate appropriations chairman. "There is no agreement on it."

"This is very unusual. We are at a bit of a loss to explain why we would want to do the budget this fast. This is not the way the budget has been done before," Morgan added.

Robin Maxey, spokesman for Hobson, said the Senate was not "necessarily" in disagreement with the House on the issue. "We just want to be involved in writing the bill, which has been the case in the past. We will look at the bill and go from there."

The budget plan contains $36 million in emergency funding, including $15 million for the ad valorem reimbursement fund, $6.2 million for the Tax Commission, $5.3 million for the Department of Corrections, $3 million for the Department of Commerce, $2.5 million for a college scholarship program and $2.1 million for the University Hospital Authority for its trauma center.

It increases funding for public schools from $1.95 billion to $2 billion and for colleges and universities from $768 million to more than $800 million.

It restores some Medicaid cuts, but does not expand benefits to 200,000 Oklahomans, as Gov. Brad Henry advocated in his state of the state speech.

A proposed net increase of 53 cents per pack in the cigarette tax is tied to that proposal and to Henry's plan to build a cancer research center.

The cigarette tax plan is stuck on the House calendar and proponents concede they are short of having the 51 votes needed for passage.

In his budget, Henry also proposed raising $71 million for education and at the same time rescuing the horse race industry by allowing pari-mutuel racetracks to have the same electronic gaming devices that Indian casinos have. That bill also is pending in the House.

The general appropriations bill passed by the House provides an extra $25 million for prisons next year, increases transportation funding by 4 percent and restores $15.5 million for the Rural Economic Action Plan, known as REAP.

In other action, the House passed a series of tax-cut bills, including one measure cutting the capital gains tax in half, a $51 million reduction.

Sponsored conceded, however, that the tax cuts are contingent on passage of other measures raising revenues.

Three of the bills passed Tuesday provide property tax relief, including two that cut the taxes of senior citizens.

The House defeated a bill designed to provide training for more bilingual teachers after it was amended to declare that English is the official state language.

In Senate action Tuesday, a bill allowing early release of nonviolent inmates was defeated and a plan to rename the Canadian River as the Oklahoma River ran aground after it faced a series of antagonistic questions. The Oklahoma River measure was laid over by its author, Sen. Bernest Cain, D-Oklahoma City, but could be brought up later.