Oklahoma lawmakers begin dash toward adjournment

Friday, May 17th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ Oklahoma legislators plan to wrap up this week a budget-cutting legislative session that may be measured more by failures than accomplishments.

Among other things, lawmakers have been unable to agree on a congressional redistricting plan, prompting a series of legal actions.

With the legislative session at a critical juncture, one lawsuit brought leaders to an Oklahoma County district court last week to testify for hours on the merits of various redistricting plans.

House and Senate leaders were publicly saying there is still a chance for an agreement prior to a planned Friday adjournment, but little real progress was reported.

Lawmakers, who have been grappling with cutting budgets to help make up for a $350 million shortfall for next year, had their task complicated last week when April revenue collections were far below expectations.

That led to cutting agencies and schools by 16.8 percent for May and June, prompting talk of furloughs and other drastic measures.

The Oklahoma Health Care Authority, which administers the Medicaid program, and the Department of Corrections, which runs state prisons, said they will need millions of additional dollars to pay the bills for the fiscal year ending June 30.

Lawmakers made progress on the budget last week. Among the bills moving through the process was a $2 billion standstill budget for public schools.

While most state agencies are being cut an average of 5 percent, leaders have been shooting for saving schools from cuts that affect classroom funding.

Sen. Cal Hobson, appropriations vice chairman, said the report on the April collections slowed the budget process somewhat but he is still confident of a Friday adjournment.

``You can only move this juggernaut so fast and we only learned of the new funding problems last Wednesday,'' he said.

House members are pushing for additional funding for prisons for the current year, but Hobson said approval of more than $15 million in supplemental funding had avoided an ``immediate crisis'' in the system.

The Oklahoma Constitution mandates that legislative sessions must end by 5 p.m. on the last Friday in May, but lawmakers have adopted a resolution to shut down on the fourth Friday in the month.

There always is a possibility of a last-minute budget snag that would extend the session.

Members of the Republican minority in the House threatened earlier in the session to defeat emergency clauses on funding bills, including appropriations to the House and Senate.

House Majority Leader Danny Hilliard, D-Sulphur, said he does not expect a GOP uprising that would extend the session or cause a government shutdown.

``I don't think that will happen, but there's a lot of 'ifs','' Hilliard said.

The education bill passed the Senate last week and still awaits action in the House, which had 37 bills on its calendar for Monday.

Several other major funding bills, including the budget for colleges and universities, still must go through the process.

Hobson said leaders have pretty much agreed on all items except prisons and the Health Care Authority.

In addition to budget cuts, lawmakers are attempting to make ends meet by dipping into the Constitutional Rainy Day fund for $268 million, most of which will require an emergency declaration by Gov. Frank Keating to access.

Senate Minority Leader Jim Dunlap, R-Bartlesville, expressed concern about the April revenue report's impact on next year's budget.

Dunlap, R-Bartlesville, said if the downward tax collection trend continues, schools could face automatic budget cuts as early as August.

Under the Constitution, allocations to schools and state agencies must be cut the same percentage if a revenue failure occurs when the Legislature is not in session.