Governor's Office Says Bill Flawed As Well As Process

Sunday, April 1st 2007, 6:00 am
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) Legislative leaders called it a responsible "current services" budget, but the governor's top financial adviser said it would have produced financial shortfalls for schools and colleges and a special session to bail out prisons.

Democratic Gov. Brad Henry vetoed all but $92 million of the $6.9 billion spending bill last week, saying it was put together in a flawed process without input from the executive branch, as well as Democrats in the Republican-controlled House.

Although news accounts have focused on Henry's anger at being left out of spending negotiations, as well as GOP criticism of the Democratic governor's own budget, the veto hinged just as much on the substance of the legislative plan as the process, aides to Henry said.

"It's the process and it's the product," said Paul Sund, gubernatorial spokesman. "A bad process often produces a substandard product and that is what happened in this case."

The veto left in doubt a tax-cut program agreed to by most legislative leaders. House Democratic leaders say they have the votes to sustain Henry's veto.

Scott Meacham, state treasurer and Henry's secretary of finance and revenue, said the legislative plan had "glaring" deficiencies, funded programs that are now defunct and over funded some items.

"This is not a current services budget," Meacham said. "The first thing that jumps out at you is funding for the Department of Corrections. If you look at their numbers, they basically gave them some emergency funds to get them through the next 30 days. They are at least $30 million short for next year."

If the budget was signed and sufficient prison funding was not provided, he said, legislators would have to meet in special session in the fall just to get prisons by until an emergency appropriation could be enacted early next year.

"Corrections is one of those state agencies you have no choice but to fund," he said. "You just can't turn people loose and stop paying the guards."

In exercising his line-item veto authority, Henry left intact emergency funding for prisons, schools and other financially strapped programs.

Meacham said the legislative budget shorted schools about $3.5 million in operating funds, despite increases in some programs. He said the budget for colleges would have guaranteed double-digit tuition increases.

The budget plan contained millions of dollars for "pet projects," funded one $800,000 education program that is defunct, did not utilize about $6 million in available gross production funds and other excess cash and gave the Department of Human Services $1.5 million more than it requested for one program, Meacham said.

Another "deficiency" in the governor's view was a plan to raise teacher pay by $600, instead of the $1,200 Henry proposed.

House Speaker Lance Cargill, R-Harrah, and Senate Co-President Pro Tem Glenn Coffee, R-Oklahoma City, blasted Henry's original budget as excessive, pointing to bond proposals totaling more than $600 million, among other things.

Since Henry announced his budget in February, the estimate of available new revenue has been reduced from about $500 million to $250 million.

Meacham said the governor's office is not married to all of the bond plans, but included them in the executive budget as worthy of consideration.

He said Henry gives top priority to two programs - funding $75 million in endowed chairs through bonds for universities and providing bonding capacity so state officials can offer financial incentives to bring jobs to the state.

Meacham said private funds are awaiting matching money from the state for the endowed chairs and the bond program would fulfill a commitment made by state leaders.

Republicans have been reluctant to expand the state's bonded indebtedness.

They are calling on Henry to provide a complete budget for lawmakers to consider as the next step in the budget process.

Sund said the governor does not plan to do that. "We laid our budget priorities in January and February. Legislative leaders laid out their priorities with the general appropriations bill this month.

"They raised concerns about our budget proposals; we've raised concerns about theirs. Now is the time for everyone to get together in a room and try to work through our concerns and disagreements."

The two sides have repeatedly accused each other of political posturing.

Senate President Pro Tem Morgan, D-Stillwater, signed off on the budget agreement with the GOP leaders and says he was surprised that Henry vetoed it.

Morgan and Coffee signed a power-sharing pact after last year's elections left the Senate tied with 24 Democrats and 24 Republicans.

The $6.9 billion budget plan passed by the House and Senate left only about $66 million to deal with a wide range of issues the rest of the session, including shoring up one of the worst funded teacher pension systems in the country.

Cargill has asked Henry which services or agency budgets he would cut in order to balance the budget and fund the programs he wants.

Meacham said such budget cuts are not required to fix what he considers as deficiencies in funding education, prisons and other critical areas.

"I think there is plenty of money to take care of these things," he said. "It is just a matter of sitting down and doing it."