State Lawmakers Set To Wind Up Session

Wednesday, June 21st 2006, 6:24 am

By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ The Oklahoma Senate approved a record $623.7 million tax-cut plan Friday, setting up an end to a three-day special session that also featured action on a $7.1 billion spending package.

The Senate vote on the largest tax cut in state history was 43-4. There was no debate. The bill must return to the House because it was amended on the Senate floor. It passed the House on Wednesday, 81-14.

The House, meanwhile, approved a record $6.6 billion general appropriations bill that contains funding to keep state agencies running and schools open during the next fiscal year, which begins July 1.

The tax legislation is designed to reduce the state income tax rate by 1 percent to 5.25 percent over four years. It would raise the standard deduction to the federal level over four years, helping many low-and moderate income taxpayers. It would eliminate the estate tax over three years.

Democrats beat back a procedural move by Senate Republicans to accelerate implementation of the estate tax.

Sen. Glenn Coffee, R-Oklahoma City, had wanted to change the bill to make elimination of the estate tax take effect on July 1, 2007, instead of being phased in over a three-year period. Democrats said that violated an agreement with House Republicans.

Coffee said he was not a party to the agreement.

Thirteen House members voted against the massive general appropriations bill, with some Republicans saying it ``grew government'' too much.

Rep. Chris Benge, R-Tulsa, appropriations chairman, said if the bill was not passed Friday, lawmakers would be in danger of creating chaos by not funding government.

``I don't think any shutdown of state government would be productive, and I think it would look like to the public that we're not doing our job,'' Benge said.

The appropriated budget is an increase of $438.5 million over last year's appropriations level.

Other surplus revenue is going to various projects, mostly through transfers to revolving accounts, pushing the total spending level past $7 billion. About $427 million in ``spillover'' money was approved for such things as a $150 million economic development and research fund, county bridges and projects at the University of Oklahoma and Oklahoma State University.

State government has had a revenue boom the past two years, primarily due to high oil and natural gas prices.

In other action Friday, the House gave final approval to a $3,000 across-the-board annual pay raise for teachers.

Rep. Debbie Blackburn, D-Oklahoma City, complained the bill would saddle school districts with a large unfunded mandate. She said the plan does not contain enough funding for costs associated with the teacher raises _ Social Security and retirement payments and $18 million for a 50-cent-an-hour pay increase for support personnel.

``This is something that is critical. We're going to have to deal with it,'' Blackburn said.

Some members described the support personnel increase as ``insulting,'' but Rep. Tad Jones, R-Claremore, education subcommittee chairman, said the increase was better than the school workers had received for several years, which was zero.

Jones said the bill was ``obviously not perfect, but we did the best that we can and it's time to move on.''

The teacher salary increases carry a price tag of $136 million and moves Oklahoma teachers closer to the regional average, a goal of Gov. Brad Henry.

The raises, a priority of Senate Democrats, are double those Henry originally proposed for this year and will be funded outside the state aid formula, meaning that all teachers will get $3,000 increases. They also will get step increases scheduled for next year.

Repeated attempts by Rep. Mike Reynolds, R-Oklahoma City, to alter appropriations were defeated when a majority of House members voted to advance bills to cut off amendments and debate on bills.

Another major bill passed by the Senate on Friday would more than double investment in Oklahoma's roads and bridges _ from $200 million to $470 million each year for state roads, while increasing county road and bridge funding from $85 million to $170 million.

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