GOP calls for deeper cuts, threatens Oklahoma government shutdown

Sunday, May 5th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ When conservative Republicans talk about state government, they are as likely to complain about its cost as to praise its accomplishments.

The cost of Oklahoma's government has come under the scrutiny of GOP members of the state House, who are calling for deep cuts in the budgets of the House, Senate and governor's office.

Cost-cutting Republicans want 10 percent cuts in the budgets of the legislative and executive branches of government to save money for education, health care and public safety agencies that are likely to be hurt by a budget shortfall projected at $350 million next year.

Some GOP House members have raised a ruckus at meetings of a House appropriations committee where the Democratic majority has pushed through legislation calling for 5 percent budget cuts.

``We ought to be able to take substantial cuts,'' said House Minority Leader Fred Morgan, R-Oklahoma City.

``Is a 5 percent reduction enough when the state is facing a serious shortfall?'' said Rep. Kris Steele, R-Shawnee.

``In a year like this, I really think we ought to lead by example,'' said Rep. Chris Benge, R-Tulsa. ``I think we ought to take a deeper cut.''

Republican House leaders say they will attempt to deepen the budget cuts when the measures reach the House floor.

If unsuccessful, the GOP may force a delay in the effective date of the legislation until weeks after July 1, the first day of the new fiscal year.

``In essence what you've done is shut down state government,'' said House Floor Leader Danny Hilliard, D-Sulphur.

``Anytime that you pass an appropriations budget and you don't make it effective July 1, there's going to be some downtime. It has a negative impact,'' Hilliard said.

Senate President Pro Tem Stratton Taylor, D-Claremore, said Republicans risk a political backlash by shutting down part of state government and possibly forcing a special session.

``They can't be seen as obstructionists,'' Taylor said.

``We have some people wanting to play chicken on this thing, and I don't think we ought to play chicken,'' said House Speaker Larry Adair, D-Stilwell.

``It very irresponsible on the part of anyone who would suggest that we ought to do that,'' Adair said. ``We need to lay partisan politics aside and do our jobs.''

Morgan said the House's GOP caucus is looking for ways to make government more efficient. Revenues to operate the House, Senate and governor's office totaled almost $40 million this year.

``We know that we can absorb a 10 percent cut,'' Morgan said.

The House's $21.5 million budget for the fiscal year that ends June 30 is 16 percent more than the previous year and is almost twice what it cost to operate the House in 1996, when the budget was less than $11.3 million.

``It's increased dramatically,'' Morgan said.

The House's budget has risen along with increases in House members' salaries, which stand at $38,000, as well as increases in mileage and per diem allowances for House members.

Travel by House members cost taxpayers $808,717 last year, including $139,253 in out-of-state travel, according to figures provided by House Clerk Larry Warden.

As of April 30, House members had accrued $734,356 in travel expenses including $167,316 in out-of-state travel.

This year's $15 million Senate budget was a 15.2 percent increase over the previous year's $13 million budget.

Punctuating their call for deeper budget cuts is what House Republicans say are large sums of tax dollars that have been carried over from one budget year to the next.

``They've had large carry-overs over the past few years,'' Benge said.

This year's House budget includes $3.2 million that was carried over from the previous fiscal year, Benge said. The Senate's carry-over totaled $2 million, he said.

This year's $3 million budget for Gov. Frank Keating's office represented a 10.4 percent increase over the previous year's budget.

GOP House members have criticized Democratic leaders for considering budgets for the House, Senate and governor's office before taking up spending for vital government functions.

``They should be the first things we deal with. And we're not,'' Morgan said.

Also remaining on the appropriations table is the distribution of funds from the state's constitutional Rainy Day program.

Half of the $341 million fund is available for general appropriations to help fill gaps caused by the budget shortfall, according to the Office of State Finance. Another $98 million can be accessed for budget stabilization.

Hilliard said a 10 percent cut in the House would force it into ``a crisis management mode.''

``It could certainly be done, but it would take some radical steps,'' he said. ``We would continue to meet our mission for Oklahoma. But it would be a much more limited scope.''

But GOP House members said the cuts would free up more than $2 million from the House and $1.5 million from the Senate for other government functions.

``Tightening out belts at the Legislature and accepting deeper cuts in our own budget would not solve all the financial woes that currently face our state,'' Steele said.

But it would demonstrate leadership ``and prove to the people of Oklahoma that we are serious about protecting and prioritizing education, health care services and public safety,'' he said.