Oklahoma legislative leaders begin digesting Governor Brad Henry's budget

Tuesday, February 3rd 2004, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ As one Democratic leader said, ``it's showtime'' in the Oklahoma Legislature, as lawmakers begin digesting details of second-year Gov. Brad Henry's ambitious program.

On Monday, Henry proposed a $5.5 billion budget that includes major funding increases for education and health care, along with tax cuts designed to produce jobs.

His program was generally well received, although both Democratic and Republican leaders were restraining their enthusiasm until they could study details and gauge support from their members.

House Speaker Larry Adair, D-Stilwell, hinted a lot of work needed to be done to get funding for Henry's program.

``It's down to the point where it's showtime,'' said Adair, who is among more than 40 lawmakers who will go out of office this year because of a 12-year limitation on service imposed by voters in 1990.

Henry proposed to get $130 million to carry his program forward by asking voters to approve a net cigarette tax increase of 52-cents per pack. Similar anti-tobacco proposals have faced rough going in the past in the 101-member House.

The governor also proposed $17 million in tax reductions geared to bringing jobs to the state.

``The year 2004 looks like one of transition and success as we emerge from the fog of last year's financial crisis,'' Henry said.

``The opportunities before us are as vast and brilliant as our wide-open Oklahoma skies,'' he said.

In 2003, Henry faced a budget shortfall of almost $700 million and says his biggest accomplishment was balancing the budget without a major tax increase.

Of his $5.5 billion budget this session, Henry said: ``It is an agenda that combines boldness with caution. Most of all, it is an agenda for our future.

``Let us resist the stale and stagnant thinking in the past. Instead, let us commit ourselves to excellence for an Oklahoma of now and tomorrow. Education, health care, tax relief and economic development: these are the key issues we must face this year.''

His budget included $114 million for education improvements, with most of the money set aside to pay teacher health care costs.

It is part of a $244 million, five-year plan to raise teacher pay to the level of bordering states.

Republicans liked some of Henry's proposals, but criticized him for not addressing workers' compensation changes they say are needed to relieve a financial burden on business.

GOP Lt. Gov. Mary Fallin said she will ``be interested to see how many of the ideas, which Republicans have been advocating for years'' will be enacted.

``If the governor is ready to roll up his sleeves and let the feathers fly, I will encourage my Republican colleagues to aid his efforts,'' Fallin said.

Senate President Pro Tem Cal Hobson, D-Lexington, praised Henry's ``continued dedication to improving education in our state and his recognition that teachers are the engine that makes our education system go.''

Henry's budget adds $372 million to the $5.1 billion in estimated revenues for the next fiscal year, including $71 million that would be gained by allowing pari-mutuel horse racetracks to have the same kind of electronic gaming devices that Indian casinos have.

He proposed using $100 million in cigarette tax revenue to expand health care coverage to almost 200,000 uninsured Oklahomans. He said uninsured Oklahomans regularly end up getting high-cost care in emergency rooms, contributing to a 30 percent increase in health care costs for everyone else.

Henry wants to use part of the cigarette tax money to build a cancer research center.

His budget reduces revenues by $4.5 million by exempting certain property sales of Oklahoma-based companies from the capital gains tax and by $12.5 million by increasing from $5,500 to $7,500 the amount of retirees' income that is exempt from income taxes.

He also proposed new fees to fund a state trauma care system.