Capital Corner

by Gus Blackwell

One of the most important items that the Legislature considers is the budget. There has been much talk about the budget process in the press and the obstacles to reaching an agreement. I pointed out in a previous article that the negotiations process had been delayed by the process of selecting a new President Pro Tempore and Appropriations chair in the Senate. However, I was optimistic that an agreement could be reached and last week an announcement was made that such an agreement had indeed been struck between the House and the Senate.

The agreement increases funding for several of the areas that are essential for the panhandle area and Western Oklahoma including education, transportation, and tax cuts.

The agreement appropriates a record 5.9 billion dollar budget and allocates specific amounts to the nine different subcommittees. Now the process shifts to the different subcommittees in each chamber to reach agreements on the allotments for the amounts that go to each agency under its jurisdiction.

Education in general will get 3.2 billion dollars. That will be split between higher education, common education, and career tech centers. Although no specific amounts have been agreed to with each of these entities, it is apparent that each will receive an increase from the past year.

Common education will receive enough to pay for the teacher pay raises, teacher health insurance, and have extra to put through the formula. I have been talking to the education appropriation chairs to make sure that our rural schools are held harmless with funding for teacher pay raises. Most of our area schools could lose money if the pay raise is structured incorrectly.

Higher education will also receive a substantial increase of about 69 to 80 million dollars. Thirty million of that will be used to begin to make the higher education bond payments. The rest will be used to fund the increased costs of operational expenditures for the colleges and universities in our state.

Transportation will also receive an additional 30 million for road and bridge repair. This is the first increase in 15 years for this line item. The House Bill that generated this increase will continue to add 30 million more a year for the next 5 years.

The budget agreement also contained good news for tax payers. It contains minimum tax cuts of 58 million and the possibility of more as negotiations continue.

Last week the House passed 236 funding shell bills to fund state government for the fiscal year of 2005-2006. These bills contained no actual amounts and will be sent to conference committee in order for the subcommittees to put in the amounts. These amounts usually represent a negotiation process between both the House and Senate committees. The Conference Committee Report is then brought to the entire Appropriation Committee for any changes or amendments.

As a member of this Appropriation Committee I will have the opportunity to amend or change bills that deal with any appropriation. Although the process is still in its infant stage, the budget process is going forward and has a great foundation.

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