Governor Brad Henry has better story to tell this year

Monday, February 6th 2006, 6:06 am
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ On the threshold of its 100th birthday, Oklahoma is poised for greatness with ``unstoppable momentum,'' Gov. Brad Henry said Monday in his fourth State of the State speech.

In contrast to four years ago, when a lagging economy forced $700 million in state agency budget cuts, Henry's speech prepared for the newly convened 2006 Oklahoma Legislature spoke of a bustling economy and improvements in education, health care and infrastructure.

The House and Senate convened at noon for brief sessions before Henry's address to a joint session.

``We are moving swiftly toward a future when no one is held back and everyone can reach his or her full potential,'' Henry said.

``From Boise City to Idabel, Altus to Miami, Ponca City to Ardmore, and everywhere in between, our state is on the move; a state with unstoppable momentum.''

He said Oklahoma is building a first-class education system, with state schools getting a ranking of seventh in the nation for teacher quality and 12th for school accountability in a recent report by Education Week.

``Over the past three years, we have laid the groundwork for lasting long-term economic growth,'' he said. ``We have created more than 50,000 new, good-paying jobs and we've raised personal income by $8 billion. We are demanding excellence in education and expanding opportunities for our children. We are a healthier people. We are making families safe and we are saving lives.''

He said bipartisanship helped the state get over the tough times of 2002 and education and health care were spared drastic budget cuts.

``Together, we rebounded from difficult times to build a vibrant economy. We permanently reduced the income tax, eliminated capital gains taxes and even provided rebates to all Oklahomans for the first time.

``Together, we lowered taxes on our retirees and we passed landmark workers' compensation reforms. Our policies have breathed new life into our economy.''

He cited trendsetting anti-meth legislation, a record capital improvement bond program for higher education and improvements in trauma care, telemedicine and establishment of a cancer research center. The health care programs were made possible by voter approval of a cigarette tax increase pushed by Henry.

``We have effectively cleared the air with sensible restrictions to make Oklahoma one of the first truly smoke-free environments in the country,'' he said of anti-smoking bills passed during his tenure.

He urged bipartisanship to ensure record investments in education and health care, including better teacher pay, free college education for students who meet certain standards and reimportation of less expensive prescription drugs from other industrialized countries.

``Oklahoma is on the right track and now we must charge ahead with the momentum we've built,'' he said. As Oklahoma's great Cherokee, Will Rogers once said, 'Even if you're on the right track, you'll get run over if you just sit there.'''

Henry had already outlined much of a record $6.8 billion budget ahead of his speech.

A forecast of $314 million in growth revenue, coupled with more than $300 million in surplus cash, is expected to set off a big fight for a share of the budget pie among supporters of education, highways, prisons, expanded health care and other programs.

Besides the $600 million available for appropriation, a $400 million Rainy Day windfall is expected on July 1 and Henry has proposed one-time projects for that money.

He wants to send $100 million to the Oklahoma Department of Transportation to fix the state's worst bridges, half on the state highway system and half on the county system. Other Rainy Day funds would go for high-tech research, to the cash-strapped teacher retirement system and to create a special fund to help recruit jobs to the state.

Taxes also will be a major consideration in budget negotiations, with both Henry and House Speaker Todd Hiett advancing tax-cut agendas.

Another big issue will be tort reform, which is being pushed by House and Senate Republicans.

In the Senate, Democrats argue the issue is largely a fund-raising effort by Republicans, who would like to take over the 48-member legislative body for the first time ever.

Lawmakers passed tort reform bills in 2003 and 2004, but doctors and business groups say those measures did not go far enough to limit their legal costs.

After the recent death of Sen. Robert M. Kerr, D-Altus, Democrats hold a 25-22 edge, but will lose seven incumbents because of term limits.

Record expenditures for schools and highways seem all but assured, although a lawsuit filed by the Oklahoma Education Association against legislative leaders has angered House and Senate members of both parties.

In the early part of the session, lawmakers are expected to appropriate emergency funding for prisons, which has a shortage of correctional officers, and for fire agencies that have suffered because of weeks of battling wildfires across the state.

Health care will be another issue. Republicans in the House have proposed reforms of the Medicaid system, while Henry and Senate Democrats are pushing to expand a program that helps pay for the health insurance of small businesses and their employees.

Democrats also have proposed $3,000 teacher pay raises and expanding the college scholarship program.