Revenue shortfall not as bad as the mid-1980s, former state leaders say

Monday, December 24th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ Financial officials have declared a budget shortfall, but former state leaders say Oklahoma's financial problems today pale in comparison to those of the 1980s when the oil industry went belly up.

State Finance Director Tom Daxon declared a $70.5 million revenue shortfall last week for the remainder of the fiscal year ending June 30. He asked state agencies to cut their budgets by 2.1 percent.

The state Board of Equalization has been asked to certify an estimated revenue reduction of $275.4 million for the upcoming fiscal year. Declaration of a budget shortfall would trigger an increase in state income taxes, so the board postponed the revenue certification until Friday.

Officials blame the situation on a drop in the cost of natural gas and in the state's gross production tax revenue.

Former Gov. George Nigh led the state through much worse economic times, during the oil bust of the mid-1980s. Business was good in the Nigh's first term. State leaders made 17 tax cuts then, he said.

But when oil prices fell through the floor during the early 1980s, Nigh and the Legislature cut appropriations by more than $400 million over two years and substantially raised taxes.

Nigh said the current shortfall is ``very minor'' compared with those of the 1980s but said it is imperative the state address the problem immediately, without panic.

Former Senate President Pro Tem Rodger Randle agrees.

``I know they are dealing with a shortfall now, but it is nothing like what we had during the oil bust,'' said Randle, who lead the Senate from 1985 to 1987 and chaired the Senate Appropriations Committee before that.

Considering the economic boom of recent years, dealing with a budget shortfall will be difficult for some lawmakers, he said.

One way Nigh, Randle and other lawmakers solved the shortfall was raising taxes, but both agree it would be tough for lawmakers to raise taxes now.

Under State Question 640, revenue-raising measures must go to a vote of the people before they can become law unless they are passed by three-fourths of the House and Senate.

Despite the tough times, some good came out of the bad, said Doug Enevoldsen, who was the fiscal director of the state House of Representatives during the mid-1980s.

Enevoldsen points to a number for government reforms that were made in response to the financial problems.

In 1985, voters approved a constitutional amendment that changed the state's revenue certification formula. Appropriations were limited to 95 percent of the revenue estimate for each fiscal year to provide a 5 percent safety net against shortfalls.

Voters also approved the ``Rainy Day'' fund to help the state deal with fiscal emergencies and limited annual growth in state appropriations to 12 percent. The Legislature also adopted several reforms, including the consolidation of some state agencies.