Oklahoma lawmakers return for tough session

Monday, February 5th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) -- Gov. Frank Keating on Monday called on the 2001 Legislature to "think legacy" and pass a program of economic reform that is headed by a dramatic income tax-cut plan.

Keating was interrupted by applause several times, but twice drew a roar of boos from unions members who packed the House gallery when he mentioned the need for a right-to-work law.

The House and Senate heard Keating's 6th State-of-State speech in a joint session after convening at noon for a session that will be highlighted by the drawing of legislative and congressional boundaries. Lawmakers must adjourn by May 25.

Perhaps the biggest applause was when Keating introduced Bob Stoops, coach of the national championship Oklahoma football team, as a symbol of Oklahoma's excellence in athletics.

"If we can we can do it in athletics, we can do it in economic development," he said.

"OU can win a national championship, and we can get our Congressman back, provided we do it together, provided we step aside from partisanship and commit ourselves to uplifting Oklahoma, making ourselves a rich, prosperous, safe and smarter state."

Keating warned he would veto any redistricting plan that tries to create a partisan advantage. "We will not gerrymander Oklahoma in 2001," he said.

The Republican governor said his program is designed to increase the state's population and "get our congressman back." Oklahoma's congressional delegation will drop from six to five in two years because the state's population did not grow as much as other states.

"Today we have one overriding goal -- to make Oklahoma so prosperous, so attractive, so energetic, so reform-minded, so desirable for business location, for peoples and companies that we reclaim our congressional seat in 2011 and add one more," he said.

Taking note that term limits will soon kick in, Keating called on lawmakers to set aside partisanship and do something for their individual legacy.

"We must think Oklahoma. We must think legacy," he said.

For the second year in a row, Keating called for abolishing the state Workers Compensation Court and going to an administrative system.

Keating proposed a tax package that includes a one-half percent income tax cut as part of a six-year program to cut the 6.75 percent tax to 3.75 percent. The tax plan would cost $50 million the first year.

"Oklahoma's current high marginal rate of 6.75 percent is a scandal," he said.

The Republican governor's $5.6 billion budget calls for budget cuts of 1 percent to 2 percent for most state agencies to finance his tax cuts, a $100 million education package and other programs.

He proposed to spend all of the $78 million available for appropriation from the state's Constitutional Rainy Day Fund.

Spared from the proposed budget-cutting were school classrooms, uniformed law enforcement personnel, mental health and veterans.

Keating was twice booed when he cited a need to pass right-to-work. At one point, Republican partisans stood up to cheer in an effort to drown out the boos of union members, many wearing T-shirts declaring that "right to work is a rip off."

Keating has pushed in vain for right to work in the past. He now says he is confident the Legislature will send the issue to a statewide vote.

Last week, he announced an education program that provides for block grants to improving schools.

He also called for $3,000 pay raises for correctional officers in a bid to solve a staffing problem at state prisons.

Rep. Larry Adair, D-Stilwell, faces a balancing act in his first year as speaker. He replaces Rep. Loyd Benson, D-Frederick, who served two terms.

The House has a new look, with 53 Democrats and 48 Republicans.

Republicans picked up eight seats in the November general election and are ready to flex their new legislative muscle.

Sen. Stratton Taylor, D-Claremore, returns as president pro tempore of the Senate.

Rep. Fred Morgan, R-Oklahoma City, is back as minority leader of the House. The Senate has new minority leader -- Sen. Jim Dunlap, R-Bartlesville.

Legislators already have started to work on solving a budget puzzle.

They have about $300 million in new money to spend, but face more than $200 million in obligations, counting bond debt payments and pay raises authorized a year ago.

Legislators will be able to dip into the constitutional Rainy Day Fund for $78.8 million if Keating goes along, which he has in recent years.