Governor Brad Henry announces details of budget

Monday, February 2nd 2004, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) -- Gov. Brad Henry told a newly convened Legislature on Monday that Oklahoma is digging out of financial crisis and now must look to the future by investing in education, health care and jobs.

His program included a 52-cent cigarette tax increase to expand health care coverage and $17 million in tax reductions geared to bringing jobs to the state.

"There is reason for optimism," Henry said of the state of the state. "The year 2004 looks like one of transition and success as we emerge from the fog of last year's financial crisis."

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

Of his $5.5 billion budget, he 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, the bulk of that money going to pay for 100 percent of teachers' health care insurance premiums. It is part of a $244 million, five-year plan to raise teacher pay to the level of bordering states.

Henry paid tribute to Oklahoma's teachers, introducing his ninth grade English teacher, Neata Nelon, from the gallery.

"The most important component of our educational system is the educator -- the teacher. Our state is blessed to have many of the finest in the nation," Henry said.

He said Oklahoma teachers are eighth in the nation in receiving national certification and his budget would keep a commitment to give those teachers $5,000 bonuses for up to 10 years. He also proposes stipends of $1,000 for graduates of a new summer program to hone skills of math teachers.

He proposed spending $2 million to expand early childhood development programs in rural areas.

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.

"Let's save our horse race industry before it's too late," he said.

As expected, Henry called for a vote of the people on an increase in cigarette taxes that will raise $130 million, most of which will be used for health care coverage for uninsured Oklahomans.

"Some of us may not support letting voters decide a cigarette fee hike," the Democratic governor said. "Let the people decide. It's the health of their children that is at stake."

He said 57,000 Oklahoma teenagers face a premature death from smoking, adding that experience has shown that higher taxes cut down on teenage consumption of cigarettes.

He proposed using $100 million in cigarette tax revenue to expand health care coverage to almost 200,000 uninsured Oklahomans.

Uninsured Oklahomans regularly wind up in emergency rooms, contributing to a 30 percent increase in health care costs for everyone else, Henry said.

Referring to the cancer deaths of his father and former Sen. Keith Leftwich, he proposed building a world class cancer center.

"Nearly everyone in this room has lost a friend or relative to this horrible disease," he said. "It's time to make the dream of a cancer research center a reality in Oklahoma."

Henry's 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 or fee increases to raise money to save the financially troubled state trauma care system.

On higher education, Henry proposed full funding for an ongoing college scholarship program and to eliminate a backlog of endowed chairs at colleges and universities.

He said he also had an "unwavering" commitment to the CareerTech system, but said it was time to "flood the financial affairs of CareerTech with the same sunlight that helps ensure accountability for all state agencies."

Henry said he would strive for bipartisan support of his programs, which included provisions of a Texas-style tort reform package advanced by Republicans.

"We will incorporate the best provisions of tort reform recently enacted by our neighbor to the south -- but we will not limit ourselves to a carbon copy of the Texas plan. Once again, we will beat Texas," he said.

In urging Democrats and Republicans to work together, Henry said:

"Recently, I had the opportunity to speak with civic groups from Enid to Ardmore, Beaver to Idabel. And what I heard time and again was that Oklahomans want bipartisanship. They want us to work together," Henry said.

Henry spoke to a joint session of the House and Senate that included more than 40 lawmakers who are going out of office because of term limits.

It was a different atmosphere than a year ago, when Henry had to be content with patching together a budget that made up a $680 million shortfall, the worst in state history.

His victories included approval of a plan for a November vote on a state-run lottery that will raise funds for education and passage of a bill restricting public smoking.