Henry's goals: higher teacher pay, lower drug prices

Saturday, December 11th 2004, 4:07 pm
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ Raising teacher pay and lowering prescription drug prices will be among the top goals of Democratic Gov. Brad Henry next year as he passes the midpoint of a four-year term.

In an interview with The Associated Press, Henry said he is still developing his agenda for the legislative session, which begins Feb. 7, ``but I intend to have a major prescription drug piece of legislation that will have a goal of lowering the cost of drugs for Oklahomans.''

He also said he would propose a workers' compensation reform package, cut government waste and is open to tweaking the tort system again.

He said he sees no reason to change how he operates because of the new Republican majority in the House.

``I don't see that it changes anything at all for me,'' the 40-year-old governor said. ``I'm still going to push the same agenda that I've pushed from day one that will focus on education and health care and job creation.

``Contrary to what some may believe, I've had my share of battles with the Democrats, but I continue to stress bipartisanship. I've worked well with Republican leaders in both houses in the past. We'll continue that same approach with this new Legislature.''

He said funding teacher pay raises _ part of a five-year program to increase Oklahoma salaries to the regional average _ will be his No. 1 priority, with a $50 million price tag in 2005.

On the budget, Henry said legislators face challenges in meeting commitments to education and state employee pay raises and filling funding gaps in the Medicaid program, a day care program for low-income families and other areas.

He said he opposes tapping the constitutional Rainy Day Fund, which is expected to get a $200 million deposit because of an improving economy.

``I see a need to build up the Rainy Day Fund so that it's there for the next governor and the next Legislature that faces the kind of fiscal crisis that I inherited.''

Henry said there would ``not be a lot of new money to spend'' next year, but the situation is better than his first year as governor when he had to deal with a $700 million shortage.

He said he planned to work with the state auditor on ways to cut out waste from state government. He said an audit of the state's vehicle fleet will produce ways to save the state millions of dollars.

Halfway through his term, Henry said he is proud of his work so far.

``I have tackled and been able to achieve most everything that I talked about during the (gubernatorial) campaign. I feel good about that. I've kept my campaign promises.''

Henry's biggest legislative achievements the past two years drew an endorsement from voters in November as they adopted referendums for a state lottery linked to education funding, a cigarette tax increase tied to improving health care and a bill to allow horse race tracks to have the same type of electronic games now played only at Indian casinos.

The cigarette tax will raise an estimated $150 million, most of which will be used to expand health care to uninsured Oklahomans. Other funds will go to beef up the trauma care system and toward building a cancer center.

Henry said he continued to ``hear from Oklahomans across the state who are struggling to pay their medication bills _ struggling between purchasing medication or purchasing food for their families.

``We have been taking a look at prescription drugs and what we can do. We have been studying what other states have been doing _ everything from leveraging buying power through formation of these large purchasing pools to reimportation of prescription medication from Canada and other countries.''

In the area of taxes, Henry said he was willing to look at a taxpayer bill of rights proposal advanced by some Republican legislators.

``But nobody should think that they can come out with a proposal and expect that everybody is just going to embrace it 100 percent,'' he said. ``We need to have a discussion here in the Legislature and a debate on these issues. But we need to do it in a civil, bipartisan manner.''

He said three tax cuts were included with the cigarette tax plan adopted by voters _ a permanent reduction in the state income tax from 7 percent to 6.65 percent, a $34-to-$35 million cut in taxes paid by retirees and the elimination of the capital gains tax on Oklahoma-based property.

``Those were part of my agenda last year. So I would certainly say that I led the way in tax relief the last couple of years.''

He said any tax program should be ``reasonable'' and ``balanced'' and targeted to ``incentivize positive behavior, whether it is investment in the economy, job creation or an instance like the retiree tax cuts I've been pushing that make Oklahoma a better destination for retirees. We need to build on that.''

Oklahoma passed the most far-reaching tort reform in its history last year and two years ago enacted reforms that have begun to dramatically drop medical malpractice lawsuit filings, Henry said.

He said that does not mean there should not be more changes in the system.

On work comp reform, Henry said a bipartisan task force he created will lead to putting ``a major, comprehensive workers' compensation reform package on the table.''

``Again, it's funny how people think that if they come up with an idea and put it out there that everybody just ought to sign off on it and pass it. I don't think that.

``I know whatever I put out there has to go through the legislative process. It's going to be discussed by everyone and if somebody else has a different idea, fine. They shouldn't expect everybody else to just embrace it. They should expect us to all talk about it.

``What we have to do on these issues is to put aside the partisan politics, find the common ground _ the things that we all can agree to _ and let's get it done.''