Lawmakers, Keating facing budget squeeze for first time

Saturday, February 2nd 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ As some Oklahomans count pennies to make ends meet during an economic slowdown, lawmakers reconvene Monday to face cutting millions of dollars from state budgets.

Congressional redistricting poses another difficult problem for lawmakers, many of whom are up for re-election this year.

Republican Frank Keating, only the second person to win back-to-back terms as Oklahoma governor, is expected to make another pitch for tax and education reform during his final of eight state-of-the-state speeches.

``The budget, the budget, the budget,'' Senate President Pro Tem Stratton Taylor, D-Claremore, said as he listed the top issues.

``Obviously there are other things, such as congressional redistricting and tax reform, but the budget will be an overriding issue, particularly when the real impact of budget cuts are realized by the public.''

Keating will address a joint session after the House and Senate convene separately at noon Monday. The session must end by 5 p.m. on May 31.

Last week, Keating previewed his budget plans, saying he wanted to dip into the constitutional Rainy Day Fund for $160 million to help offset a shortfall largely tied to lower natural gas prices. His budget cuts would total almost $100 million.

Keating joined Taylor and House Speaker Larry Adair in proposing no budget cuts for education. The governor also would spare critical areas of health care and public safety.

It's the first time since the early 1980s, when oil prices plummeted, that lawmakers have had to deal with budget cuts of such a magnitude. The budget gap is estimated at between $250 million and $300 million, counting commitments made in previous years.

While paring budgets, Keating is advocating a supplemental appropriation of $12 million to shore up the financially ailing Medicaid program and an extra $25 million to ease a budget dilemma at state prisons.

He also wants to revamp state pension systems to free up $67 million that could go toward teacher health care costs.

Both Taylor and Adair have said that teacher health care will be a top issue during the 2002 session.

Keating is expected to push a plan to eliminate the state income tax and replace it with a new sales tax on services. That plan, however, has failed to get noticeable support in the Legislature.

Last week, Keating joined legislative leaders of both parties in announcing that a 32-member task force would try to come up with a tax reform plan that would accomplish the goal of stimulating economic development, while not reducing state revenue.

Keating and other members of the state Equalization Board have been named in a Republican-sponsored lawsuit seeking to overturn an automatic increase in the income tax from 6.75 percent to 7 percent. The increase was triggered by the state revenue shortfall.

Congressional redistricting is the topic of another GOP lawsuit that seeks a court-directed deadline on redrawing boundaries.

Oklahoma's Congress members are being reduced from six to five because the state's population did not grow as fast as other states.

Republicans and Democrats have advanced competing redistricting plans, but no committee action has been taken.

Keating has threatened to use his veto power to force concessions from the Democratic majority.

The governor's education program is again expected to feature a bill to require high school students to take four years each of math, science, social studies and English.

Some educators have resisted the 4-by-4 concept, saying it creates an unfunded mandate and harms the career-tech system.

Taylor is winding up his final year as head of the Senate majority, while Adair is beginning his second year as speaker after surviving a GOP-led ouster attempt last year.

He jokes that he is ``always looking over my shoulder,'' but is more confident than he was a year ago. ``I feel like I have my feet on the ground this year. I'm probably a little better organized.''

There are currently 52 Democrats and 48 Republicans in the 101-member House. One vacancy, created when Republican John Sullivan was elected to Congress, will be filled in a special election next month in Tulsa.

The Senate counts 30 Democrats and 18 Republicans.

Elections this year are set for all the House seats and half of the 48 Senate posts.