Good news for state may complicate Oklahoma legislative session end

Monday, May 26th 2003, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ A $216 million federal windfall, while welcomed by everyone, may complicate efforts in the closing days of the Legislature to raise car tag fees to prevent furloughing state troopers.

Critics say the money, coming as the result of passage of President Bush's tax-cut package, should negate the need for a temporary, $2 surcharge on car tags.

``I think that any pending legislation involving tax and fee increases should be pulled back in light of this information,'' said Rep. Todd Hiett, R-Kellyville, House Republican leader.

Sen. James Williamson, R-Tulsa, Senate GOP leader, agrees.

Others, however, say there is uncertainty over when the state will actually get the money and lawmakers should forge ahead with existing plans to close a $700 million budget gap by Friday's 5 p.m. deadline to adjourn.

Leaders are hoping to get through by Thursday, but Senate President Pro Tempore Cal Hobson, D-Lexington, said that will take ``a Herculean effort on the part of everybody.''

Besides the car tag issue, lawmakers must pass scores of funding bills, and make final decisions on such issues as curbing smoking in public places, gaming on Indian land and at horse race tracks, cockfighting and curbing medical malpractice insurance costs.

Hobson said he wanted to know more about the federal windfall, including when the money will be available.

``We appreciate the help and we are going to put it to good use,'' the Senate leader said. At the same time, he said Washington continues to be fiscally irresponsible by running up the national debt.

``We had another approach figured out'' to prevent the trooper furloughs, Hobson said. ``This is not real money from Washington. This is play money. It's what they do every day and somebody, some time will have to pay it back and it won't be those folks serving in Congress, it will be their children and grandchildren.

``I don't think that is fiscally conservative, but if our Republican colleagues have decided they don't want to support Commissioner Ricks in funding the Patrol, then there is a very simple thing they can do, and that is to vote 'no'.''

Public Safety Commissioner Bob Ricks has been pushing for the tag fee increase, which would raise $6.6 million to stave off plans to place Highway Patrol troopers on unpaid furloughs for 23 days.

Sen. Angela Monson, D-Oklahoma City, said it may be mid-July before the state can access any of the federal money set aside to help states fund essential services.

That has led to speculation that lawmakers might convene in a special session to spend the money.

Oklahoma is getting the cash as part of a $20 billion aid package added to President Bush's tax-cut bill, which passed Congress last week.

It is estimated that $99 million of the $216 million will go directly into the state's Medicaid program, and about $117 million will be available for use elsewhere in state government.

The news came as the tag fee increase bill was reported out of committee to the floor of the House.

The proposal has had some GOP support in the House, Hiett said, because of a desire to protect public safety.

One Republican senator told a reporter last week that he had mixed feelings, abhorring a tag fee increase but wanting to help out troopers.

``I'll probably vote no and hope they don't need my vote,'' the senator said.

Democratic Gov. Brad Henry, meanwhile, said he is still evaluating the measure and had not made up his mind on whether to support it.

``I'm keeping my cards close to the vest,'' Henry said Friday.

Henry said it was premature to talk about a special session on spending the federal money.

Under the legislation, the $2 surcharge would expire on Aug. 30, 2005.

``With $217 million in new revenue coming into the state, surely we can find $6 million to fund the Department of Public Safety to avoid the furloughs,'' Hiett said.

He said he did not know if a special session would be necessary, suggesting it might be possible to prevent the furloughs through an emergency appropriation early next year.