Oklahoma senator blames media for bringing attention to social issue bills
OKLAHOMA CITY – Time is ticking at the Oklahoma State Capitol.
As the minutes go by, many Oklahomans are wondering what is being done by our lawmakers.
In less than one week, the Legislature must present the state budget for the next fiscal year, which begins July 1.
In February, state leaders announced that Oklahoma was facing a $1.3 billion, which amounts to nearly 20 percent of last year’s budget.
Since that time, state agencies across the state have been bracing for massive cuts that are affecting everyone.
State Secretary of Finance Preston Doerflinger ordered all agencies to take an additional four percent cut for the current fiscal year – adding to a three percent cut ordered earlier this year.
For schools, that adds up to nearly $110 million lost – money many districts had already budgeted for.
Districts across the state announced their plans for staying on budget, which mainly consisted of cutting programs, laying off teachers, increasing class sizes and even shortening the school week.
In a post by Mid-Del Superintendent Dr. Rick Cobb, he said, “I’m worried about finishing this year with enough money to make payroll and pay all of our bills. I’m more concerned with next year.”
The Oklahoma City Public School District was told to fill a $30 million budget hole, causing cuts to hundreds of positions.
However, school districts weren’t the only agencies dealing with the financial crisis.
A plan by the Oklahoma Health Care Authority to cut Medicaid payments to hospitals and clinics by 25 percent was met with stiff opposition.
The Oklahoma Association of Health Care Providers says the cuts will create a “crisis for Oklahoma seniors and threaten to completely dismantle the state’s network of nursing homes.”
Last month, the Oklahoma Department of Human Services alerted its employees and contractors that the agency is facing a $100 million shortfall in state funding.
“Our fiscal circumstances are so serious that we must examine the potential for reductions in every administrative, service, benefits and program area in this agency,” DHS Director Ed Lake said. “This news cannot be sugar-coated- the results will be painful, barring what would be some kind of fiscal miracle.”
Now, lawmakers at the Capitol must deliver a budget for all agencies by Friday.
In the midst of the crisis, Oklahoma voters and taxpayers have voiced their frustration after a series of ‘social issue’ bills were passed by lawmakers.
“My point [to the Legislature] is that ‘You’re wasting the people’s time.’ I sit here every session and look at hundreds of bills that do nothing to fix the problems of the state,” Chris Shoaf, an activist for the LGBT community, said.
Even lawmakers are criticizing the decisions of their colleagues.
“It’s a political distraction.“We still don’t have a budget, we have almost a billion and a half shortfall, and instead of working on the budget today, we worked on this issue,”John Sparks, Democratic floor leader, said regarding a resolution that calls for the impeachment of President Obama.
However, one lawmaker says the media is really to blame for bringing attention to those bills.
Senate President Pro Tem Brian Bringman told the Tulsa World that the Legislature really is focused on education and health care, not the social issues.
“That’s the media’s doing,” Bingman said. “They can pick and choose and they can elevate the issue and people call and [say[, ‘Is that really what you all are doing?’ My focus has been on the budget this year.”
Bingman is one of two authors of a bill that focused on federal guidelines that were released regarding transgender students and bathrooms.
Senate Bill 1619 would allow students to seek a special accommodation so they may use a restroom that is exclusively for males or females. It would also allow the attorney general to represent a school district in a challenge of those federal guidelines.
Despite being the author of Senate Bill 1619, which was just introduced last week, Bingman says that funding core services is his priority.
To be fair, lawmakers have approved bills that will affect the budget in the next fiscal year.
Leaders passed legislation to do away with an income tax deduction that allows Oklahoma taxpayers to deduct state income tax they claim on their federal income tax return from their state return.
Supporters say the measure will save the state an estimated $87.3 million a year for state services.
Early Friday morning, the Oklahoma House of Representatives voted to make the Earned Income Tax Credit non-refundable for the 355,000 low-income Oklahomans who receive the tax break.
The Oklahoma House of Representatives voted to cap a rebate for oil and gas companies at $12.5 million, which is expected to save the state about $120 million.
However, lawmakers couldn’t seem to agree on a proposed $1.50-per-pack cigarette tax increase.
Opponents said not only does the tax hike target the poorest Oklahomans, but the bill was voted on before other tax hikes that would make a bigger impact, like wind energy.