Oil, gas cushion gives Oklahoma better budget situation than other states

Monday, May 20th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ If Oklahoma's budget picture looks bleak this year, a congressional report says it could always be worse.

State budgets this year in Arizona, Colorado, Indiana and New Jersey will come up 12 percent short, according to a recent report by the National Conference of State Legislatures. Oklahoma's shortfall is about 8.3 percent.

Oklahoma state agencies were told last week to cut budgets by more than 16 percent through next month. The budget crisis threatens to bring more lost jobs for teachers, health care cuts and early release of prisoners.

Money, however, from a $341 million Rainy Day Fund will ease some of the pain. The fund was started in better years with extra revenue, much of which came from taxes on oil and gas production.

``It's because we have that cushion that allows us to paste over, to some degree, the impact of the recession. If you don't use your Rainy Day Fund when it's raining, you slow down the progress,'' said state Sen. Cal Hobson, D-Lexington. ``We should spend the Rainy Day Fund and keep our fingers crossed that the economists are right and we'll be bouncing back.''

Economists predict state finances will begin recovering next year.

Hobson said he hopes the money shortage this year will make lawmakers be creative about funding the state in future lean years. Legislators have mentioned considering a statewide lottery, consolidating agencies and regulating the state's gaming industry so the government can share in profits.

The National Conference of State Legislatures report says tough times in other states have prompted the use of emergency measures Oklahoma hasn't had to consider.

Nebraska residents last month, for example, agreed to an extra half-cent sales tax for a year. Lawmakers there cut $20.7 million from Medicaid for this year and tapped into funds paid in a multistate lawsuit settlement with tobacco companies.

Arizona used money from its Rainy Day Fund and then borrowed money from funds that were supposed to be used for other items. Colorado froze state hiring and has used reserve money.

Texas, Louisiana and New York were among seven states did not report shortfalls this year.