Keating makes final pitch for tax, education reform in State of the State address

Monday, February 4th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ Gov. Frank Keating, delivering his eighth and final State of the State address Monday, called on the Oklahoma Legislature to reform the tax code and strengthen the state's public education curriculum.

He said Oklahoma's 7 percent income tax is the 12th highest in the nation, the highest in the region and is a detriment to growth.

If it were abolished, Keating said, ``every working person in the state would have an immediate 7 percent salary increase.''

For months, Keating has promoted the idea of eliminating the income tax and replacing it with a new sales tax on services.

Failing to get noticeable support in the Legislature, however, he agreed last week to hand off the issue to a 32-member task force to see if a consensus can be reached on changing tax structure to spur economic development. The panel is to issue a report on April 12.

Keating also said in his address that the state must improve its education system.

He proposed strengthening curriculum by requiring four years of education in four main subjects _ math, science, English and social studies. His proposal had more flexibility than his previous plans. Under it, a wide range of vocational and technical course offerings would count toward the math and science credits.

Also, school districts could adopt policies that would allow students, with the approval of parents, to opt out of the 4-by-4 program.

Keating received boos in each of his previous seven State of the State addresses for saying the state needs right-to-work, a law that bans companies from requiring employees to pay union dues. Voters passed such a law last year.

Keating mentioned right-to-work, and once again received loud boos.

``The eighth time is the charm,'' Keating quipped.

Oklahoma legislators opened their yearly session Monday. This is expected to be a difficult session because they must find ways to close a spending gap set at $262 million by the Office of State Finance.

Congressional redistricting will be given top priority, but Democrats and Republicans appear far apart on the issue and Keating is threatening a veto that could throw it to the courts.

Keating is only the second Oklahoma governor to serve back-to-back terms. The other was Democrat George Nigh. Republican Henry Bellmon was elected twice, but his terms came two decades apart.

The governor already has outlined the basics of a proposed $5.6 billion budget.

He would make up a gap between available revenues and spending commitments by tapping the Rainy Day Fund for $160 million and cutting budgets by about $100 million.

Education and critical areas of public safety and health care would be spared.

Keating tried last week to put a good face on the need to cut budgets, saying it was an opportunity to make efficiencies that will improve government.

``Prudent management of the dollars entrusted to us by the taxpayers of Oklahoma requires that we make cuts when times are lean,'' the governor said. ``My office will be among those reducing its budget.''

He also announced he wants to solve financial problems of the Teacher Retirement System by combining the system with the main state retirement fund and putting new hires on a type of 401K program.

Keating is proposing some new spending, including a $12 million supplement for the Oklahoma Health Care Authority to bolster the Medicaid program and $25 million in emergency funding for the state prison system.