Henry says prisons his top priority

Thursday, August 11th 2005, 6:54 am
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) Ahead of a meeting with House Speaker Todd Hiett, Gov. Brad Henry on Wednesday said his top priority is still finding a solution to the prison guard staffing problem.

Henry, a Democrat, included prison funding in an expanded special session call that initially focused on workers' compensation reform. He also proposed that lawmakers use surplus revenue to fund centennial projects.

Hiett, R-Kellyville, recently said that if leaders can reach an agreement on prison funding and a special session is held, lawmakers should also consider the issue of tax parity between tribal and non-tribal tobacco retailers.

Henry and Hiett were to discuss the issues at a meeting on Thursday.

Voters last fall approved a tobacco tax increase that eliminated the sales tax on cigarettes but raised the tobacco excise tax by 80 cents per pack. It took effect Jan. 1.

So far, tobacco tax collections have fallen short of projections and officials have questioned whether some tribal smokeshops are complying with tax stamp requirements.

Hiett has said he'd like to see a bill that creates a more level playing field for tribal and non-tribal tobacco retailers.

Henry said he also is concerned about hardships suffered by non-tribal retailers who are complying with the law ``and we've got to address that.''

But he said the problem was primarily ``a compliance issue'' and officials are researching ways it could be addressed administratively.

He said he was not overly concerned about a revenue problem caused by the state getting less money in taxes from tobacco sales than had been projected. He said the state has a $38 million cushion on tobacco revenue needed to fund the Medicaid program.

Henry said tobacco revenue projections took into account the prospects that tobacco sales would decline as more smokers quit or try to quit because of the new tax.

``I think that's a great thing,'' the governor said of the expected decline in smokers and other tobacco users.