Agencies submit wish lists for state funding

Tuesday, January 3rd 2006, 10:25 am
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) -- When the state legislature reconvenes on Feb. 6, it will begin the process of deciding how to divide $6.5 billion in government revenue among state agencies, including health, education and corrections.

Those agencies have already submitted their wish lists.

The Oklahoma Department of Education wants to continue Gov. Brad Henry's drive to bring teacher pay to the regional average, state Superintendent Sandy Garrett told the Tulsa World. The average increase for the 2005-06 pay raise was $1,300. It was the first raise in a four-year plan to bring teachers to the regional average.

Garrett also supports increases for school support personnel such as bus drivers, cafeteria workers and custodians. She also wants more funding for classrooms. Schools are also seeing major increases in costs for fuel and heating.

Corrections officials also want a higher level of state funding. The state is expected to add at least 500 more offenders to the prison population this year, said Corrections Director Justin Jones.

"We have a huge need for maximum- and medium-security bed space," he said.

Maximum-security beds in most states make up 12 percent to 15 percent of the total bed space, but in Oklahoma they are less than 5 percent, Jones said.

"We just haven't built any," he said.

Jones also wants to increase pay and benefits for staff members to recruit and retain employees in an agency that posts a job vacancy rate of 20.31 percent.

Transportation Department Director Gary Riddle said his agency is faced with a rising cost of construction materials for roads and bridges at a time when major infrastructure work is needed.

He said is hopeful that the Legislature will follow up last year's legislation to increase funding and agree to handle the debt service on a massive capital improvement project approved in 1997 and increasing funding for the department.

Last year, House Bill 1078 required that at least $17.5 million be allocated to the department each year, increasing to $35 million in years when growth revenues rise more than 3 percent.

"It was a great first step in moving us to a position to preserve the assets we have to ensure things don't get worse as well as make improvements which are long overdue," Riddle said.

Kevin Pipes, chief of staff for the state Health Department, improving fitness and nutrition and reducing tobacco consumption are among the agency's goals.

The department wants to hold the line on any effort to reduce the price of tobacco, he said.

On Nov. 2, 2004, voters approved a net tax increase of 55 cents a pack on cigarettes. The increase went into effect Jan. 1, 2005. The department also wants to continue making progress in the areas of homeland security and bioterrorism, Pipes said.

"That would also include preparedness for any infectious disease outbreak, like pandemic flue and avian influenza," he said.

The Oklahoma Department of Human Services has asked for 121 new employees for child welfare, said Howard Hendrick, the department's director. Child welfare employees handle abuse and neglect investigations and are involved in pregnancy planning.

The department needs more group home beds for teenagers with psychological problems, he said.