State agencies say they're out of ideas as budget shrinks

Thursday, April 11th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ State budget shortfalls could mean fewer summer courses at colleges and universities, fewer teachers in classrooms, fewer beds at shelters for victims of domestic violence and less help for residents with mental illness, agency leaders say.

State agencies are under orders to cut budgets by 6.64 percent for April, May and June.

Public Safety Commissioner Bob Ricks said the Oklahoma Highway Patrol will not hold an academy this year.

``We're running out of ideas,'' said Nico Gomez, spokesman for the Oklahoma Health Care Authority, which funds the state's Medicaid programs.

The Health Care Authority will take an especially big hit because it loses federal matching funds every time its state budget is cut.

Gomez said the agency will be forced to cut about $6.7 million this month.

State schools Superintendent Sandy Garrett said the latest cuts are a devastating blow for Oklahoma schools.

``We're at the point now where many will have to cut into the classroom and into the basic personnel,'' she said.

Funding for common education already took a more than $22 million hit for the rest of the school year, forcing some schools to lay off support staff and make other cuts.

Terry Cline, with the state Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services Department, said the latest cuts could mean turning away more people from domestic violence and drug abuse centers. He said if the agency can't help needy people, they will end up in hospitals and prisons and cost taxpayers more money.

``We're doing everything we can to protect clients, but with a reduction of this magnitude, it will be very, very difficult to do,'' Cline said.

The department already started a hiring freeze and delayed equipment purchases. It will lose about $3.2 million through June.

Terri Angier, spokeswoman for the state Transportation Department, said the budget slashes make it difficult for the agency to improve roads. Earlier cuts have already interfered with road maintenance, she said.

The state Human Services Department faces cuts of about $6.2 million for the rest of the fiscal year, which ends in June. Director Howard Hendrick said his agency may have to cut services.

``We're concerned, but I don't think we're panicking,'' Hendrick said.

State Corrections Director Ron Ward said his agency is seeking an extra $30 million from the Legislature for the rest of the fiscal year. More than two-thirds of that is for private prisons, he said, while the rest would go for medical services.

The budget shortfall arises largely from lower-than-expected natural gas tax collections caused by declines in the economy throughout the region.