Governor battles legislative leadership over budget deficit

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OKLAHOMA CITY (KFOR) – COVID-19 and low oil prices have issued a drastic hit on Oklahoma’s economy.

The effects are forcing the state to declare a revenue failure. But on Thursday, Gov. Kevin Stitt refused to sign one of three bills designed to address the financial crisis, alleging some lawmakers were playing “Washington D.C. politics.”

“House leadership wanted to use this time to play Washington D.C. politics and sneak in some last minute changes while Oklahomans are hurting,” Stitt said.

The governor came out firing at the legislature Thursday, alleging a deal was broken as they try to plug a big hole in the state budget.

Stitt claims he and legislative leaders met last week and agreed on a series of bills to plug the $450 million budget holes. Over the weekend, one of those bills was amended, cutting some funding to the governor’s Digital Transformation Initiative. The bills were all passed overwhelmingly by the House and Senate.

“The bills the legislators sent me fully funded everything except for one priority digital transformation; that broke our agreement,” Stitt said.

The governor said those funds are needed, especially right now, as 33,000 state employees are working digitally. On Thursday, he signed two of the three bills funding the state though April, but wants lawmakers to come back to the capitol to rework legislation to fund May and June.

“What’s so disappointing, as while we are working 24 hours a day to address the COVID crisis, and to come in here and play politics is very disappointing,” Stitt said.

“He didn’t get exactly what he wanted, so he is holding things up,” said Rep. Forrest Bennet.

Representative Forrest Bennet says he isn’t aware of the deal cut by Republican leaders.

“We can’t afford any alternative. We have got to make sure that services are not disrupted and our plan does that, and I just hope we can move forward,” Bennett said.

News 4 reached out to House and Senate leadership for a response but have not heard back. However, the governor is adamant.

“I want to put this to bed, but the people of Oklahoma elected me to hold true to my word. I’d be letting them down if I allowed house leadership to try to play gotcha politics,” Stitt said.

The governor did say Thursday he is not interested in making cuts to any agencies this fiscal year like he alluded to on Tuesday, but those could happen in 2021.

House Speaker Charles McCall, R-Atoka, released the following statement:

“The House and Senate remain united by our actions to swiftly stabilize the budget, and call on the governor to finish the job. Further legislative action is not needed when a stabilized budget is already on the governor’s desk. There is no benefit to having the budget certainty the Legislature swiftly provided jeopardized because of opposition to a noncritical issue representing 0.003% of the budget. This is especially true when the Legislature just gave the governor authority to allocate $50 million at his discretion during his catastrophic health emergency declaration.”

Senate President Pro Tempore Greg Treat, R-Oklahoma City, also spoke out about the governor’s comments saying:

“If there ever was a ‘rainy day’ in Oklahoma it would surely be during the middle of a catastrophic health emergency that has wrecked our economy. We have the savings to weather this storm in the short-term. That’s why the Legislature by overwhelming margins in both the House and Senate took steps to prevent cuts to core state services by accessing state savings.

The Legislature appreciates the job the governor is doing to manage the state’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, which is why we gave him unprecedented authority to direct the state’s overall effort. Among that authority is the ability to transfer up to $50 million in state funds to help with the ongoing pandemic response, and surely a portion of that money could be used to address digital services responding to the health crisis.

The governor was given more authority over state agencies last year, in large part to allow the state’s chief executive to identify and eliminate waste. When it comes to next year’s budget, which begins July 1, the Legislature is willing and ready to work with the governor on any ideas he has to save taxpayer dollars.”

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